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The Real Problem with Algebra in Schools

The Real Problem with Algebra in Schools boils down to one question, “Should all students across America be required to take Algebra to continue their studies?” In an op-ed for The New York Times titled “Is Algebra Necessary?”Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, ignited a fierce debate on mathematics education in the US. His perspective challenges the traditional approach to teaching algebra, raising questions about its relevance and effectiveness. This post delves into the arguments presented by Hacker. It also offers insights into the ongoing discourse, focusing on the implications for education.

Rethinking Mathematics Education

Hacker boldly advocates for a paradigm shift in math education. Proposing alternative courses that prioritize quantitative reasoning from an early age, challenging the conventional wisdom surrounding traditional algebra. While some of Hacker’s ideas strike a chord, IMACS believes math education reform is paramount rather than scraping algebra requirements altogether. We recognize the merit in his call to introduce quantitative reasoning early on. Resonating with the notion that students shouldn’t endure the “ordeal” of struggling through algebra.

However, IMACS contends that the focus should be on revamping how mathematics is taught rather than eliminating algebraic studies. Delving deeper into Hacker’s proposal reveals a critical examination of its consequences: the potential for alternative math courses to cater to students who struggle with traditional algebra. Thereby alleviating the strain on resources. Yet, this begs the question: do we risk neglecting most students who navigate traditional algebra, albeit with varying degrees of success? We emphasize the need to empower all students to excel, not merely avoid struggle, especially as technology’s influence continues to shape their futures.

The Real-World Application of Math Skills

Hacker highlights a crucial issue: the disconnect between classroom math and real-world quantitative reasoning demanded by modern workplaces. IMACS emphasizes teaching fundamental problem-solving skills essential for both algebra and professional success. Teaching mathematics effectively to all students should be our primary goal. We acknowledge the challenges posed by prolonged economic stress on families, school districts, and public higher education, prompting the prioritization of activities likely to lead to gainful employment.

A crucial aspect of the author’s argument is that high schools may not adequately equip students with the math skills essential for the workplace. For instance, John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University, highlights the disparity between mathematical reasoning in workplaces and the algorithms taught in schools. However, the author overlooks that the same mathematical reasoning skills required in the workplace are fundamental to success in algebra. Both contexts demand the ability to identify problems, gather relevant information, analyze and synthesize data, and effectively apply solutions. These skills necessitate critical thinking and logical reasoning, aspects typically emphasized through the teaching of algebra, albeit indirectly.

The Real Problem with Algebra in Schools

Before all the Algebra Problems


If the US education system were to prioritize the development of fundamental skills during elementary school, students would not only find learning high school algebra and other subjects easier, but they would also be better prepared for the workplace. Problem-solving abilities are highly valued in any career path they may choose. Moreover, as mastering algebra becomes more accessible, it would consume less instructional time, allowing for the inclusion of additional topics or more advanced mathematics. While this may seem like an idealistic vision to those who believe they are inherently “bad at math” due to ineffective curricula, IMACS has witnessed the success of this approach for over 20 years.

Challenges in Higher Education

Algebra requirements in higher education, including for non-STEM majors, raise concerns about equity and access to opportunities. IMACS suggests exploring alternatives to rigid math mandates. Teaching courses in citizen statistics and interdisciplinary studies may prove to be beneficial. Andrew Hacker’s critique of algebra prompts a necessary dialogue about the purpose and effectiveness of mathematics education. Algebra remains a foundational subject. Yet there is merit in reevaluating how it is taught and its relevance in an evolving society. By embracing innovative approaches and accommodating diverse learning styles, we can foster a deeper appreciation for mathematics and empower students to succeed in an increasingly quantitative world.

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