Is algebra an unnecessary stumbling block in US schools?

March 28, 2016 by Karen Matthews

Who needs algebra?

That question muttered by many a frustrated student over the years has become a vigorous debate among American educators, sparked by a provocative new book that argues required has become an unnecessary stumbling block that forces millions to drop out of high school or college.

"One out of 5 young Americans does not graduate from . This is one of the worst records in the developed world. Why? The chief academic reason is they failed ninth-grade algebra," said political scientist Andrew Hacker, author of "The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions."

Hacker, a professor emeritus at Queens College, argues that, at most, only 5 percent of jobs make use of algebra and other advanced courses. He favors a curriculum that focuses more on statistics and basic numbers sense and less on (y - 3)2 = 4y - 12.

"Will algebra help you understand the federal budget?" he asked.

Many U.S. educators, including the architects of the Common Core standards, disagree, saying math just needs to be taught more effectively. It's fine for students to have quantitative skills, they say, but algebra is important, too.

"Every study I've ever seen of workers in whole bunches of fields shows that you have to understand formulas, you have to understand relationships," said Philip Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics and of public affairs at the University of Texas. "Algebra is the tool for consolidating your knowledge of arithmetic."

Bill McCallum, a professor at the University of Arizona who played a lead role in developing the Common Core standards for math, said he would oppose any division of K-12 students into an algebra track and a non-algebra track.

"You might say only a certain percentage of kids will go on to use algebra, but we don't know which kids those are," he said.

In New York City, home to the nation's largest public school system with 1.1 million pupils, just 52 percent of the students who took last year's statewide Regents test in Algebra I passed, mirroring statistics elsewhere in the country.

Rather than scaling back on algebra, New York City educators have announced an "Algebra for All" initiative that aims to keep students on track by providing specialized math teachers in fifth grade, before algebra is introduced.

"We believe in high standards," said Carol Mosesson-Teig, director of mathematics for the city Department of Education. "And we believe that the best way to serve the students is to strengthen the instruction."

Eighteen-year-old Isaiah Aristy took the algebra Regents test twice and failed it both times.

Aristy, now a freshman at the Borough of Manhattan Community College who is hoping for a career in law enforcement, said he was good at math until he hit algebra.

"When it came to x and y and graphing, that's when I started dropping, and it made me feel low," he said. "But we don't need to learn what x and y is. When in life are we going to write on paper, 'X and y needs to be this?'"

Like millions of community college students across the U.S., Aristy must pass a remedial math class with no college credit, and then pass at least one college-level math class, if he wants to get an associate's degree.

But Aristy isn't just repeating Algebra I again. BMCC is one of about 50 community colleges in 14 state that offer an alternative track called Quantway, developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, that seeks to develop quantitative literacy.

"It includes some basic algebra concepts, but you don't learn how to factor polynomials or solve complex equations," said math department Chairman Fred Peskoff.

Project director Karon Klipple said the foundation devised Quantway and a statistics track called Statway in 2011 because of the sheer numbers of students dropping out of community college due to algebra. Sixty to 80 percent of nationwide test into remedial math, and most don't pass it, she said.

"This is where their hopes and aspirations go to die," Klipple said. "They're in college to try to make a better life for themselves, and they're stopped by mathematics."

Explore further: Learning algebra too early may harm some students, study says

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Squirrel
4 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2016
To fail algebra suggests people lack the ability to manipulate not just numbers and abstract variables but ideas, relationships and things in general. Most jobs require such thinking even if it is not maths linked.
ET3D
5 / 5 (3) Mar 28, 2016
My 5 year old managed to get through DragonBox Algebra 5+, and that gives pretty good Algebra basics. He may be bright, but in general I'd say that the reviews speak for themselves. In short, it's how you teach the subject.

As for school vs. work, school doesn't teach student what they need for jobs. History is useless for most jobs, so is biology, literature, and pretty much everything that's taught beyond basic math and English. So any attempt to discuss school at that level is misguided.
marko
5 / 5 (2) Mar 28, 2016
Removing basic mathematics from school curriculums is just like the Taliban saying you must learn the koran.

Red-neckism is rife in the educational system.

Instead of raising standards and expectations, lets lower the bar instead.

You cannot shrink to greatness. What would President Kennedy think of this.

The US had its sputnik moment in the 1950's. It seems the US needs to have its pants pulled down to its ankles again.

If the Asians can come to America and study hard and achieve to their potential, then why can't the rest of the lamers do the same.

Here is some algebra to consider: effort + brains + practice = success

agres
5 / 5 (2) Mar 28, 2016
As often taught, algebra is useless. However, it can be a powerful tool, for solving all kinds of life problems - yes, it can help one understand the federal budget and your own personal budget, but we do not teach solving real problems with algebra. We expect students to work out how to apply algebra to practical problems by themselves. However, figuring out how to apply algebra to practical problem requires real proficiency with algebra, which one only gets by practice. Algebra is not the problem - how it is taught is the problem.
jalmy
5 / 5 (2) Mar 28, 2016
Algebra is about how go about breaking a problem down into components and solve them. Yes it is fundamentally necessary. If more people passed it, maybe we would have less morons in the world. Algebra did not make these people fail at school. They are two sides of the same coin.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Mar 28, 2016
Algebra is about how go about breaking a problem down into components and solve them.

This.

School all too often fails to teach that the important thing isn't the numbers but the way to think about things. Getting the knack of algebra is essential for any occupation that requires a sharp mind (from engineering to programming or any kind of science)...basically any job where you aren't given a recipe that says "do this and do it like this for the rest of your life" (with the possible exception of the arts..but then again making a living at doing art is incredibly unlikley).

"When it came to x and y and graphing, that's when I started dropping, and it made me feel low," he said. "But we don't need to learn what x and y is.

The graphing is the first step to understanding statistics. Something not taught in most schools but even more important to making good decisions in life: from where to invest (time/money) to what news to believe.
Mark Thomas
2 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2016
The goal should be to maximize the benefit to society as a whole. To do that, school curricula should be engineered to better fit our actual world. The societal costs in each area should be justified by a return on investment (ROI) to society. It is obvious to many that we are getting too much focus in some areas and very little in others, often for historical reasons. Putting aside algebra for a moment, consider what percentage of the population actually uses calculus in their career versus how much effort is put into it? It looks more like we are trying separate people by intelligence than actually teach them something they will use and that alone is not sufficient justification.
jalmy
5 / 5 (2) Mar 28, 2016
It looks more like we are trying separate people by intelligence than actually teach them something they will use and that alone is not sufficient justification.


Yes. That is exactly what they are doing, and always have done. College is worse. You think the goal is to teach you things you need for a career? That is stupid. Nobody learns what they actually use in their career in a classroom. On the job training is infinitely more efficient. High school is the proliferation of an antiquated education system coupled with structured daycare. The world needs garbage men and janitors and cooks and general laborers. Yes in society we "separate people by intelligence" all the time. Deliberately. The fact is... high school Algebra is easy. If you fail it. it is because you are lazy, dumb or both. And no I do not want you in my society as a doctor, engineer or lawyer. I want you cooking my french fries. Algebra in this context is one of many checks and balances.
Zzzzzzzz
5 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2016
The goal of education is to develop the brains of young people to unlock potential, not to maximize societal benefits. To make decisions on maximum societal benefit is to relegate people to Big Brother manufactured futures. To develop the intellects that will discover the breakthroughs that expand knowledge, never start with a pre-defined outcome.
If we define educational success based on those who cannot pass remedial math, we are relegating all students to Vocational Technical School. Instead, let High School steer those best suited for Vo-Tech to Vo-Tech, and those best suited for University toward University.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2016
Jalmy, obviously I realize that is what they always have done. Read the article and my post again. Both are asserting that we as a society could do better! Per the article (and a little reading between the lines), instead of forcing people out of high school who will never use algebra, offer alternatives that will carry those people as far as possible too.

Think of it this way, if we want to improve our odds of developing something like warp drive and traveling to the stars, we are going to have to maximize the efficiency of our education system on a global scale. It will take a tremendously effective educational system not only to funnel geniuses to the right places, but to educate everyone to bring us all up as much as possible to contribute the maximum amount possible. Even the person cooking your fries should understand why an effective space exploration program makes sense so he/she can vote accordingly. The time for tolerating an ad hoc curriculum is over.
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Mar 28, 2016
Zzz wrote, "The goal of education is to develop the brains of young people to unlock potential, not to maximize societal benefits."

That almost sounds like a university mission statement put out by their marketing department while they are saddling their students with mountainous debt. You are right that focusing on what actually works might mean we might end up with a few more plumbers and few less poets. However, I suggest most want to live in the most effective society possible.

No offense to plumbers or poets, we need a certain number of both.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2016
The fact is... high school Algebra is easy. If you fail it. it is because you are lazy, dumb or both. And no I do not want you in my society as a doctor, engineer or lawyer. I want you cooking my french fries.

Hmmm.... so those you've identified as dumb you would entrust to prepare your sustenance. Perhaps some algebra may help you see the problem with that equation.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Apr 02, 2016
It's been a long, long time, but I remember how our Maths teacher tried multiple approaches to get students engaged with algebra, rather than push one (1) rote method aka 'The Sausage Machine'...

The trad 'balance' analogy fitted my wits, other ways suited other students...

He did the same with Calculus. I *loved* Calculus, both for its power and elegance. My unfortunate inability to get beyond the rudiments was attributed to a mental block on 'Abstracts'; my exceptional '3D Inner Eye' made basic algebra, geometry and, later, tech-drawing so easy-peasy...

Over the years, I accumulated a dozen text-books on Calculus, hoping against hope that one might ignite the knack...
Ryanmatthew
not rated yet May 27, 2016
I think that we should submit during 8th grade or beginning of high school what your career is going to be so then that student doesn't waste time learning things he/she will never use.

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