Rethinking the Need for Algebra
“Is algebra necessary?” asks Andrew Hacker in an opinion piece in Sunday’s NY Times. It’s a question thousands of ninth graders have asked their parents and teachers over the years.
Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, isn’t simply questioning whether students should be forced to take algebra, but whether the traditional three or four-year mathematics sequence is actually necessary. Hacker argues that much of the content of higher mathematics is not useful in later life and careers, and that the logical thinking skills that math is purported to teach can be taught in other, more palatable ways. In addition, he notes that failing at mathematics, particularly algebra, is a strong contributing factor to kids dropping out of school.
Hacker’s argument will surely raise the hackles of mathematics teachers and proponents of encouraging more STEM students. Algebra has been touted as the gateway course in preparing students for college, prompting some schools to push the course back even earlier into eighth grade. Unfortunately, the results have been less than heartening.
In 2002-3, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools began a program of encouraging even moderately performing seventh graders to take algebra in eighth grade. Nearly 90% of students enrolled in algebra. A Duke University study published early this year found that students who were accelerated by the new initiative scored significantly lower on final exams in Algebra I and were no more likely to pass traditional succeeding courses in geometry of Algebra II. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg policy was discontinued after two years.
California’s state board of education in 2008 enacted a similar policy of teaching algebra to eighth graders with similar outcomes. Studies found that requiring struggling eighth graders to take algebra resulted in poorer results on state math tests and less likelihood that the students would take higher math courses.
What about waiting until ninth grade to require all students to take algebra? Chicago schools found that more students completed algebra in ninth grade than in eighth, but that test scores didn’t improve and low-performing students were no more likely to attend college after high school than before.
Chicago schools tried to divide Algebra I into a 2-year course without great success. I myself found high school teachers in favor of offering a pre-algebra course to students having difficult in math, but it often became a course that no one wanted to teach and that few students wanted to take. And I can also attest to the problems these same students had trying to amass three math credits necessary to attain a New York diploma.
Professor Hacker acknowledges the importance of learning the problem solving skills that higher mathematics require, and suggests that instead of the traditional math sequence, schools could offer the equivalent of consumer math (my words) or “citizen statistics” (Hacker’s phrase). He insists that these courses would not “dumb down” the curriculum. My experience suggests otherwise.
The problem, I think, isn’t algebra per se, but our inability to present mathematical concepts and skills in an integrated way that is developmentally appropriate and challenging for kids. Sixth grade is often an entire year of review, and seventh and eighth grade move slowly. The traditional high school math sequence has been the same for 50 years. Math courses continue to be a mile wide and a quarter inch deep.
A student’s future success doesn’t depend on a specific math course. It depends on how well we understand kids’ intellectual development and readiness to be challenged and how we can engage them in the process. Despite enormous changes in technology and science, in many schools mathematics instruction hasn’t changed since 1965.