Abandoning Algebra Is Not the Answer (Scientific American)

In an opinion piece for the New York Times on Sunday, political science professor Andrew Hacker asks, “Is Algebra Necessary?” and answers, “No.” It’s not just algebra: geometry and calculus are on the chopping block, too. It’s not that he doesn’t think math is important; he wants the traditional sequence to be replaced by a general “quantitative skills” class, and perhaps some statistics.

Quite a few people have responded to Hacker’s column already. I highly recommend these posts by Rob Knop, Daniel Willingham, and RiShawn Biddle.

There are so many problems with Hacker’s essay that it’s hard to know where to start. Hacker’s first main point is that math is difficult, and the poor grades that result prevent too many people from graduating high school or college. His second is that the math we learn is not the math we need in our jobs.

Math certainly is incomprehensible to many students, but from where I sit, poor teaching is often the reason. Math education is failing many of our students. Few pre-college math teachers majored or even minored in math, and until more teachers do, improvements will be hard to come by. Ironically, it seems that people who have mastered “useless” algebra and other higher math topics tend to get jobs that pay more than middle school math teachers earn. I have the utmost respect for people with math degrees who choose to teach in spite of the poor pay and discipline problems, but few people make that choice. Math education needs help, but Hacker’s suggestions throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Read the rest here.


Wow ... I read the piece that Ruth put up not that long ago about defunding political science, and then I got this article forwarded to me from an atheist friend, and I about dropped my teeth. I'd like to say that I'm hallucinating or that this is all one big joke, but apparently, it isn't. The United States is falling behind the rest of the world in math as it is, and Andrew Hacker would put us even FURTHER back by removing it altogether. I mean it; I'm shaking my head, part in wonderment, part in apoplectic fury at the stupidity of this suggestion.

It would seem that there are those in the US who want us STUPID, uneducated, and unaware. Sound familiar?

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"Ironically, it seems that people who have mastered “useless” algebra and other higher math topics tend to get jobs that pay more than middle school math teachers earn."

But those that mastered these subjects are NOT the middle spectrum student. These are not the ones who struggled with the subjects... it's no surprise they score better jobs. But that does not mean, however, that forcing ill suited students into classes they have trouble with will make them comparable performers. No more than forcing all students into advanced music training will make them all good musicians. I did great in math, however if I were to be graded on my musical skills I would be at the bottom of the class. Not everyone is suited for the same things/

There is a great deal of attention (with good reason) given to reading ability (certainly more critical than algebra) and as to whether it is poor schools, poor parents, poor teachers, tv, or whatever. Twin and adopted child studies have strongly suggested that genetics has a strong component (whether an adoptive parent is a reader is of little statistical significance compared to what their biological parents were).

In the last few years I have become aware of the physical aspects of this in a very personal way. Normally I am an avid reader, almost all my free time is used reading something; it's part of who I am. However, I periodically get a form of migraine that does not cause much pain but significantly affects my vision, but also my verbal and word recognition abilities. Reading becomes almost impossible for the duration, when I read aloud, I sound EXACTLY like a 'problem reader'. I have difficulty parsing a sentence, difficulty recognizing a word, difficulty keeping my place in the text. I live on both sides of this divide, I KNOW what it feels like to struggle to read a couple of sentences and I know what it feels like to read a scientific or tech article and understand it. Sometimes people just can't do something no matter how much education you throw at them.

A couple of years ago, an associate of mine where I worked came to me with a problem in geometry.  He needed to figure out the incident and departure angle of material on a roller, to calculate the load forces on that material and how it would be sensed by a load cell on the bearings of that roller.  I took a look at his measurements, dusted off my 45-year-old geometry and trigonometry lessons from high school, and maybe 15 minutes later, drew up a solution for him.  That may be the one time in my career that I actually USED those lessons.  Somehow they stuck with me, and I was able to press them into service

By the same token, I had a English teacher in my Junior year who was a bitch-on-wheels, but the one thing I WILL say for Grace L. Karl was that she was right when she told me that an engineer not only had to be able to know how to design something, but be able to WRITE (preferably clearly) about how it was designed.  At the time she said that, I wasn't much interested in listening (I HATED her guts) ... but as it happens, I've written or co-written six maintenance manuals on equipment I've worked on, plus more technical publications than I care to count.  At the risk of tooting my own horn, they have generally been received pretty well.

Point being: we don't get to CHOOSE many times where we use what we learn, especially when it's off-axis from where the focus of our careers or interests lie, but it sure as hell doesn't hurt to know that stuff when the opportunity or need arises for its use.

who needs math when we have calculators?  i heard musings such as that when i was in high school.  you'd think grown ups would know better.  you'd think...

Most of those dips likely think that batteries grow on trees ... and even if they did, problem-solving skills DON'T ... so it's a nice idea to LEARN such skills!

I heard an interview on NPR a few days ago suggesting that one way to improve American education would be to make some programming skills part of the standard curriculum starting in elementary schools. The speaker said that currently, too many kids don't have the opportunity to find out if they have a desire and aptitude for getting more deeply involved.

It makes sense that this would develop disciplined problem-solving skills!

"who needs math when we have calculators? i heard musings such as that when i was in high school. "

I hear that a lot, and the response in shock and horror that people these days 'always need a calculator'. The funny thing is, though, of the people decrying dependency on calculators, probably not one in a hundred could derive a sine, tangent, logarithm or hyperbolic function without a calculator. Hell probably half of them couldn't even do a square root on paper. They're only a bit less dependent on calculators than the average person is.

I could walk into the engineering department where I work with one of my slide rules and I'll bet maybe one or two of the old timers would even know how to use it.

My old Keuffel & Esser is around here SOMEWHERE.  It got me through my years at Case Tech, and the best you could do with it is maybe 2-1/2 significant digits.

This is only sometimes true. I can do all of those things in my head even without paper. One thing to note is that you are not really taught to do those things. Even teachers who restrict calculators don't teach that and they let you use one for problems like those. Because of calculators.

Gee, since we should eliminate math classes because they're so hard that student's can't graduate from high school, maybe we should eliminate all of the other hard classes too. Then we could pass everybody and we'd be so much more educated than other countries.

Yeah Ruth - lets just remove all the classes and just teach nothing - then everyone will be uneducated. But at least it wasn't "hard".
Good point! I agree!

Yes algebra is so hard lets just not teach it anymore and of course trigonometry and geometry is beyond our kids comprehension and besides who needs it.  "We don't need no stinking advanced math" .  Who needs engineers, doctors and scientist, not America, all that math and science is for geeks.  There is nothing in the babble about algebra and Jeebus never said we had to learn it. 

Translation: let's be LAZY.  Let's leave the heavy lifting to someone else, while we benefit from those who actually DO the heavy lifting ... which, given the continuation of this mistaken mindset, will be the Chinese, the Indians, and any other culture which values intelligence of indolence.

Yeah, I get your sarcasm, John.  I just wish it weren't necessary to spell it out so blatantly.  I am just sick to death of stupidity, of ignorance, and of the purposeful ignorance that we as atheists continually fight against.  It's pure madness to me, and I wonder that others don't see it for what it is.



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