Sunday, July 29, 2012

Is algebra that important?

Posted By on Sun, Jul 29, 2012 at 9:43 AM


The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning reported on the mixed results of standardized math and science tests given to Arkansas 8th-graders. It was drawn from results available on the Arkansas Research Center website under the scores, growth and proficiency heading.

Then I turned to the Sunday New York Times and came across this headline:

Is Algebra Necessary?

Writes Andrew Hacker, a professor of political science:

There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)

Hacker writes that forced algebra causes high dropout rates and dooms some seeking to enter or complete college. He also argues that the skills taught in the courses aren't necessarily those useful on the job.

Certification programs for veterinary technicians require algebra, although none of the graduates I’ve met have ever used it in diagnosing or treating their patients. Medical schools like Harvard and Johns Hopkins demand calculus of all their applicants, even if it doesn’t figure in the clinical curriculum, let alone in subsequent practice. Mathematics is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status.

It’s not hard to understand why Caltech and M.I.T. want everyone to be proficient in mathematics. But it’s not easy to see why potential poets and philosophers face a lofty mathematics bar. Demanding algebra across the board actually skews a student body, not necessarily for the better.

It's by no means all negative about math skills. My mother-in-law, a teacher and generally brilliant person, always argued that success in math was a key to success in just about every other educational endeavor. I never knew her to be wrong about almost anything. But I found Hacker's premise at least interesting and wish she were around still to comment.

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