Is Algebra Necessary?

In this NY Times Opinion piece, Is Algebra Necessary? Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, questions the value of requiring so much higher math of the vast majority of students who will never, he argues, need to factor polynomials, let alone tackle calculus.

My math friends (I have some) will argue that struggling with and learning the intricacies of higher level math improves all manner of thinking. Frankly I do not know enough math to argue against that notion. I will say that I am among the many people who are reasonably intelligent, good at their work, and who have a fulfilling and productive life, but who cannot recall a time when I have consciously used algebra, once done with the coursework. I have definitely put my understanding of percents, decimals and fractions, pre-algebraic functions to good use.

Maybe it’s the way the courses are typically taught.

This article is well reasoned I thought and worth the read, no matter what your bias.

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
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5 Responses to Is Algebra Necessary?

  1. Richard says:

    No doubt it’s the teaching. You probably use more simple algebra and geometry in everyday life than you think but in our day it was taught as the memorization of a bunch of decontextualized formulas. If it were taught with more practical example of usage it would stick and be more useful in every day life.

  2. Sanford says:

    Richard,
    Most likely it’s the teaching approach. There are probably some times where I’m using some elementary algebra to create an internal equation to figure out a missing value/number.

    Still, Algebra 2?

  3. Richard says:

    Well, I didn’t do well in Algebra 2 either but I was told I had to have it to go on to geometry and in that I did a lot better.

    It’s all a matter of teaching and making the formulas make sense in real world applications whenever possible.

  4. Sanford says:

    “It’s all a matter of teaching and making the formulas make sense in real world applications whenever possible.”
    -Absolutely

    In my experience over time more of my students with dyslexia had an easier time with geometry than algebra. The theory is geometry is more obviously about things you can picture and in that sense, “make real.”

    I bet that great math teachers can make most math real.

    But, how much math should be required for non-math/science majors is another question.

  5. Richard says:

    I don’t think avoiding something because it’s taught badly is a good idea. No doubt many subjects are taught badly, or, they’re taught in ways that make them inaccessible to people with learning disabilities. But, having a broad background, not a narrow one, makes for a better jumping off point for later specialization. How many seniors in high school or freshmen in college are mature enough to choose a major? Not many.

    It might be that doing what you’re talking about (lessening math requirements) will create a self-fulfilling prophesy: produce students who are even weaker at the general thinking skills that come from proficiency at math.

    I don’t know the answer to these things and I doubt anyone does. But, I do know that math has a reputation for being taught badly and that alone makes me suspect of changing core requirements before attacking curricula and teaching.

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