Is Algebra Really Necessary?

Today I finally got around to reading Andrew Hacker’s opinion piece in the New York Times from July. Yes, I am behind.

Hacker starts the piece by describing how he used to believe in the “virtue” of learning algebra, but that now he sees the reasons for doing so as based on wishful thinking rather than evidence. He then talks about the problems with algebra taking resources away from other quantitative work, and causing students to drop out of high school. And universities often require algebra and other higher mathematics for admission, excluding students that may have real talents in other areas. Only 58% of entering college freshmen graduate college and math is often to blame. He also calls mathematics education to task for teaching math skills that have little relation to those needed in workplaces. He ends with a call for a focus on quantitative reasoning and a call to reduce the amount of abstract mathematics we require of all students.

Hacker also tries to rebut some of the likely counter arguments, noting that quantitative and statistical literacy are indeed vital in our world, but counters that there is no evidence that being able to do algebraic manipulation actually improves the kind of quantitative reasoning skills that we need to be citizens and have access to employment.

There is lots to love about this op-ed, starting with the fact that it is an editorial about math written by someone who is not a mathematician or mathematics educator. It doesn’t herald the coming of a great new reform that will fix all of our mathematical woes. It asks us to take a look at what we are doing and why, and that is something that we should be doing more of. Why is our mathematics curriculum structured in the way that it is? How did algebra and calculus get to be so important? There are answers to these questions, if we care to look. For instance, this history of math education by David Klein. And what are our real goals in our K-12 curriculum and in our college curriculum? Why those goals and not others? Who does our mathematics curriculum support well, and who is disenfranchised by it?

I’m thinking about these questions all of the time, so I’m curious to hear the answers of others and will be working on putting my own answers out there. I’m thankful to Hacker for opening the conversation, even if I was too wrapped up in my own thing to listen.



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