Andrew Hacker, emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, recently wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?” His opinions caused quite a stir in the ongoing debate over mathematics education in the US. IMACS sees value in some of his ideas, such as teaching quantitative reasoning starting in kindergarten, and we agree that schools should not subject students to the “ordeal” of struggling with algebra. However, IMACS believes that education professionals should focus on changing the way mathematics is taught, not on eliminating the requirement to study algebra.
First, consider the attendant consequences of the author’s proposal, which is to create alternative math courses that “familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.” Perhaps the large yet still minority percentage of students who cannot pass traditional algebra would be allowed to satisfy their high school math requirement with these alternative classes. As the author sees it, this would limit “misdirecting precious resources” presumably by redirecting them to the new classes. Does that mean we abandon the majority of students who can pass traditional algebra to the ineffective mores of a failing system (now with even fewer resources) because, hey, at least they’re not struggling? Never mind the fact that neither are they soaring as high as they could and will need to as the influence of technology on their world grows!
Teaching mathematics effectively to all students is the outcome we should be striving toward. Make no mistake—we understand the consequences of the prolonged economic stress on families, school districts, and public higher education. It is natural in such times to direct limited resources to activities most likely to lead to gainful employment. So let’s consider a key element of the author’s argument—that high schools are not even teaching students the math skills they will need in the workplace. He writes:
“Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job. John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied math education, has found that ‘mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.’”
The author seems to miss the point that the mathematical reasoning skills needed to succeed in the workplace are the same ones needed to succeed in algebra. In both cases, you must be able recognize a problem or challenge, gather information relevant to finding a solution, analyze and synthesize the information to derive a solution, and effectively apply the solution. This takes critical thinking and logical reasoning abilities, and the current pedagogical approach is to try to impart these skills through the process of teaching algebra, almost as a side-effect.
Were the US education system to focus more in elementary school on building these fundamental skills, not only would students find learning high school algebra (and learning in general) easier, they would also be better equipped to succeed in the workplace where problem solvers are highly valued. Furthermore, as learning algebra becomes easier, it becomes less time-consuming, thereby freeing up instructional time to add topics from skill-training to more advanced math as desired. It may sound like an idealistic vision to the millions of people who have come to believe they are “bad at math” when they are more likely the product of bad math curricula, but we have seen this approach work for IMACS students for over 20 years.
“Even in jobs that rely on so-called STEM credentials — science, technology, engineering, math — considerable training occurs after hiring, including the kinds of computations that will be required.”
Of course considerable training occurs after hiring in STEM fields! The need for accuracy and the complexity of the body of knowledge are so much greater in these fields than in others that are more subjective in nature (e.g., the arts) or that rely more on so-called “soft skills” (e.g., politics). We need only to look to the history of the Space Shuttle to understand the consequences of errors in judgment. On a happier note, consider that the successful entry, descent, and landing of the Mars Science Laboratory was almost 10 years in the making. On-the-job training is necessary in many non-STEM fields from law to portfolio management to journalism to costume design. Why should we expect STEM be any different?
“Toyota, for example, recently chose to locate a plant in a remote Mississippi county, even though its schools are far from stellar. It works with a nearby community college, which has tailored classes in ‘machine tool mathematics.’”
As for the Toyota-sponsored Machine Tool Mathematics class, the course catalog description is “An applied mathematics course designed for machinists which includes instruction and practice in algebraic and trigonometric operations. (2 hour lecture, 2 hour lab).” That doesn’t sound like the math is different from what is taught in high school. Rather it sounds more like the way the math is taught is different. With a hands-on lab, it actually sounds like fun! That is a huge distinction and goes back to our main point that we need to significantly change our approach to how we teach mathematics in the US.
At IMACS, we support the idea of schools using math curricula that accurately incorporate real-world examples that students care about. This approach helps put abstract concepts in context but, more importantly, gets students interested in learning and helps them understand how mathematics shapes our world. Those who appreciate mathematics in its pure and abstract form are pretty special people, but math should and can be accessible to the majority as well. There also need to be more options for visual-spatial learners who may not “get” math concepts when presented on a bland white board. Rather than redirecting limited resources to creating new alternative classes, the focus should be on redesigning the algebra curriculum (as well as those for elementary, middle, and the rest of high school math) to present mathematics for what it truly is, a deep discipline centered around simple but beautiful ideas, rather than a bunch of numbers, funny symbols, and boring algorithms.