Is algebra really necessary? asked Andrew Hacker in The New York Times. America’s high schools require all students to take algebra and other advanced math, from geometry through calculus, but for millions, this obstacle course of abstract equations is sheer misery. In many states, testing shows that more than a third of students fail to rate as “proficient” in algebra; teachers tell me that math classes make some students feel stupid, and are a major reason why as many as 30 percent of kids drop out—especially among minorities. “So why do we subject American students to this ordeal?” Rather than force math-averse students to grapple with “vectorial angles and discontinuous functions” that no non-engineer will ever use, why not focus on true “quantitative literacy”? That would mean teaching statistics, budgeting skills, and math used in public and personal life, while removing the “onerous stumbling block” that algebra presents to higher education.
Can you possibly be serious? said Daniel Willingham in The Washington Post. Learning algebra and other abstract math teaches students how to use logic and step-by-step analysis to solve problems—a skill transferable to real life. It’s no accident that strong math and science skills “are robust predictors of individual income, and of a country’s economic growth.” Besides, said Evelyn Lamb in ScientificAmerican.com, algebra really isn’t as abstract and esoteric as people think. “It underlies technology and science that we use every day,” from our smartphones to our cars. Limiting its teaching to prospective engineers “will only serve to increase the disparity between those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t.’’ As for the argument that you don’t need algebra in most jobs, by that standard we should also stop requiring students to read Hamlet and The Old Man and the Sea. Yet “my life would not be as rich if I had never been exposed to great literature.” The same is true of algebra.
Sounds like someone who got an A in algebra, said Richard Cohen in The Washington Post. Bully for you. But in my math classes, “I never understood a word the teacher was saying,” and I got absolutely nothing out of them except a migraine. Nevertheless, I’ve had a successful career, and make daily use of what I learned in English, geography, and history. But if you ask me—or most adults—when a train leaving New York will pass a train leaving Los Angeles at twice the speed, we’ll tell you: “Who cares?”