Excuse my cynicism in this piece; it is a reaction to a perfect storm of articles over the last few months which, far from moving the Overton Window, broke the window and ripped out all the framing leaving a gaping hole in the side of the house. Yes, people have seriously brought up wanting to eliminate algebra.
Idiots With Megaphones Want to Eliminate Algebra
My initial annoyance came a bit more than a month back with an article on the New York Times Opinion page entitled, “Is Algebra Necessary?“.
In that article, Andrew Hacker, an Emeritus Professor of Political Science argues that making algebra mandatory leads to unacceptable dropout rates, prevents us from developing young talent, and prevents students from gaining entry into college. The article, of course, also notes that other countries are better (Finland and Canada anybody?) at mathematics, but writes them off by claiming it’s simply perseverance.
Of course, the article also advanced the most ridiculous non sequiturs you can imagine:
“… a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above.” Right, so we should cancel physical education because most people sit at their desks. Let’s cancel literature since most of us don’t read classics at work. In fact, let’s cancel everything except lunch – at least a majority of us still eat lunch at work!
- ‘Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that “to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.” ‘ – The same thing is true for any ostensibly hard subject. So, for Ms. Bagwell, I propose we eliminate grades. Grades are the major impediment to kids graduation and going to college, so if we stop ranking children, more will graduate. Too extreme? Let’s just eliminate all the subjects kids fail. History? Too hard. English class? Useless – kids can just use emoticons to get their points across. Political Science? Too easy. Gone. Biology? Chemistry? Useless! When all we’ve got left is lunch, everyone will pass!
- “Another dropout statistic should cause equal chagrin. Of all who embark on higher education, only 58 percent end up with bachelor’s degrees. The main impediment to graduation: freshman math.” – Obviously, why stop in High School? Let’s allow unlimited Mulligans in college too. If you fail a class? Let’s automatically drop it from transcripts. Obviously, the only important thing is to have the degree, the knowledge that degree is supposed to represent is a joke. Right? Anyone?
Of course, I could just be falling victim to Poe’s Law.
For the uninitiated, Poe’s Law states that without an indication of intent, it’s impossible to know if a piece is a parody or satire (see this recent article about Paul Ryan), or just an extreme idea. In this case, if I’m being dense, it’s because I’m ignoring that Mr. Hacker is a Professor of Political Science. It’s possible the New York Times just published a trolling article to pump page views and discussion. DQYDJ has been known to publish satirical pieces from time to time, and the comments generally take the articles as serious (try to find them – have fun in the archives!). A proposal to eliminate algebra might just be unserious after all.
Of course, as you can tell by the tone of this article, I think that the author was serious. I wasn’t the only one – after he penned it, articles agreeing with him started to roll in… here’s a representative piece from Jacob Vigdor at the American Enterprise Institute (and a Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Duke).
He makes the argument for curricular specialization – the idea we should be testing the potential (capacity?) of our 8 year olds to determine their future schooling prospects. Maybe he’s right – but do we have any tests which are at all predictive at 8 years old? I mean, you’d have a hard time convincing me college kids have any clue what they want to do with their lives, let alone pre-teens.
If we only have a subset of our kids learning algebra, what do we do with 18 year olds who suddenly want to work in a technical field? Seriously, I’d like to know the answer.
Defining Standards Down
Here’s what I think: our culture of defining standards down has gone to far. If there is a pendulum that determines whether we are being too strict or too light on our kids, it’s approaching the top of the ‘too light’ path.
For years now (especially to kids born in the mid to late 90s and beyond), we’ve been teaching children that self-esteem is the most important thing they can have – whether or not they’ve actually done anything to deserve it. Participation awards? Sports without scores? Pass/no pass? All of these are symptoms of the same drive to never have to deal with loss and failure.
From youth sports and kindergarten, it has traveled up the chain. If there are no losers in youth soccer anymore, it’s tempting to believe we should do the same thing in all of our classes. Because, let’s face it, if your child never loses at anything and gets all As (or ‘P’s) all the way through college, gets into an Elite University, then takes home a C, how do we expect them to act? We have no clue – it could be anything from quiet contemplation to thoughts of suicide. Learning to lose and to fail is an important thing to learn… and choosing to eliminate algebra is a step down the wrong path.
We all know that when faced with a problem, such as only 4% of students qualifying for elite colleges due to their Math SAT scores, or a bunch of kids failing a subject, there are two ways to ‘fix’ that problem.
- Devote more time to that problem – for example, fixing how we teach algebra, assign homework, or motivate students.
- Change the standard so more kids pass.
By defining passing down, we’ll also have more people pass and more students “qualify” for elite universities. It still doesn’t fix certain ironies – soon after publishing an article disparaging Math, the New York Times editors proved they slept through English class. To wit? There is a major difference between “C.E.O.’s” and “C.E.O.s”. Yep, one is possessive, the other plural.
What’s next, should we protect self-esteem in dating? Perhaps we should force kids to marry their first boyfriends and girlfriends to avoid hurt feelings during the break-up?
How did you do in Algebra class? Would you prefer your children didn’t have to take Algebra? Was the NYT article trolling, or was it completely serious in wanting to eliminate algebra? What other subjects would you love to eliminate?