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Are we teaching algebra to the wrong students?

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By James McCusker
Herald Columnist
There is a long-standing connection between humor and our anxieties. Humans, Americans in particular, have long used humor to keep our worries at bay.
One of our most enduring anxieties is about math. Naturally, then, we have had a near-constant flow of comic strips and single panel cartoons, along with stand-up comic routines, TV sitcom scripts and Internet stories, all dedicated to making fun of our math phobia.
A personal favorite among the cartoons is one by "Far Side" humorist Gary Larson in 1990, titled, "Math phobic's nightmare." In it, a new arrival at the gates of heaven is informed that to gain entry he has to answer a question, which turns out to be an all-too-familiar type of story problem involving two trains, one leaving Philadelphia and the other Denver, each at different times and different speeds.
It is a healthy thing to laugh at our math anxiety -- and a healthy laugh can sometimes lead to productive solutions to vexing problems.
Andrew Hacker is a distinguished scholar whose riveting lectures have informed and elevated students' thinking for nearly a half-century, first at Cornell University and later at Queens College of City University of New York, where he is currently emeritus professor of political science.
Hacker wonders if it makes sense to force students to take and pass algebra. His recent New York Times essay on the subject, "Is Algebra Necessary?" however, has stirred up old and new controversies throughout the education establishment as well as the general population.
His question resonates in today's world. Many people, especially students, subscribe to the idea that "we will never use algebra in our jobs or in any other part of real life." Maybe.
One group of college seniors that I had tortured with algebra-based "story problems" in their management seminar certainly believed that algebra had no professional value to them in their careers. Imagine their surprise when the recruiter from their most desired corporation that year showed up on campus -- and during each interview tossed the applicant a story problem to solve. It was a real-life version of Gary Larson's "Math phobic's nightmare" but our class, as it turned out, was well prepared. (The recruiter later told me that these problems frequently came up and they needed managers who could solve them.)
Professor Hacker's conclusion that algebra is not a critical requirement in the workplace is not one that is universally accepted, certainly not by employers.
Still, he is undoubtedly correct about one aspect of public school math courses: An appalling number of students fail math courses, and algebra is at the top of the list.
There are many plausible explanations. It could be that there are increasing numbers of students who "don't get it" and never will. It could be that the way it is taught stinks. It could be motivation. It could be teacher quality. It could be the pre-algebra math curriculum. It could be that the level of distraction in today's high school classes has reached the point where some courses can be taught successfully … but not algebra, which requires a different level of concentration.
The solution that Hacker proposes -- that algebra is too hard and we do not need it, so toss it out -- raises some questions of its own.
The most interesting question raised, of course, is why pick on algebra? When the educational system is ailing, why should we be surprised to see the symptoms show up in the most difficult courses? Why were students in the past able to master algebra when today's students cannot?
Without answers to those questions Hacker's idea -- to dump Algebra in favor of something called quantitative literacy -- looks more like a convenient patch than a solution. And even though his thoughtful approach doesn't really deserve it, his idea invites criticism as another move to "dumb down" the curriculum to raise student grades and graduation rates.
No one who has dealt extensively with entry-level workers can fail to recognize the incredible diversity of recent high school graduates. Some have the skills, self-discipline, and attitude that ready them for success at their jobs and their lives. Others cannot be relied on to write down an intelligible phone message, make change or even to listen to instructions. What they have in common, though, is that each has a high school diploma.
Maybe the algebra issue should lead us to examine if it is both fair and accurate to make all high school diplomas equal. There could be merit in allowing students, instead of repeated failures and dropping out, to adopt a high school educational path that did not necessarily lead to further academic studies. It only solves part of the algebra problem but it is worth a look.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.
Is Algebra Necessary?
Read Andrew Hacker's New York Times essay at
Story tags » Education & Schools



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