Algebra: Stop Requiring It for Graduation

Columnist Jerry Heverly shares his opinion on why algebra should be made optional rather than required for high school graduation.

(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at The views expressed here are his own.)

I was scrambling up a mountain in Northeastern Albania when I started working, in my head, on this column. (All summer I tried to drop a mention of my summer travels in the Balkans. I finally found a way)

When I got back to civilization in Tirana, I discovered that a writer, Andrew
Hacker, had written essentially the same column for the Sunday New York Times. (The Times charges for subscriptions so I can’t give you a link but any Google search will quickly turn up summaries of Hacker’s ideas.)

What I want to argue, as Hacker did, is that it is a big mistake to require all
kids to take algebra.

I am not advocating that algebra be dropped from high school. For any
student who considers going to college, I’d strongly recommend it. What’s happening now is that non-college-bound kids are flunking algebra at an astonishing rate.

I’m 6521.6 miles from home (I looked it up) so I can’t look up the statistics
but something like 50 percent of all freshmen at San Leandro High School get a D or F in algebra every year.

And I’d bet that nearly 100 percent of all students who drop out of SLHS had a D or F in algebra.

Algebra is a major precipitating cause of high school dropouts. The usual answer I get at this point is that, if students are failing a subject we should a) change the way we teach the subject or b) change the teachers.

I’d certainly be in favor of a). Here’s a video that shows how I think the
subject should be taught: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWUFjb8w9Ps.

I taught algebra for four summer school sessions. I’ve also observed math
teachers. I think I understand how the present methods evolved (and why changing teachers would not produce the desired results).

What do you do when kids refuse to engage in your subject? You simplify it.
In the case of math, you develop algorithms, little step-by-step directions that any willing person can remember. This means, however, that when you test these same students, you must structure the questions to resemble the example you gave them for practice.

Algebra then becomes a game of recognizing which algorithm to apply to which problem. It does not involve thinking.

I should also point out, as someone who detests state-mandated standards,
that a big reason for algorithms is because teachers are required to “cover” a host of topics in an algebra class, guaranteeing that even imaginative teachers cannot take the time to include any real thinking in the course.

I’ve heard other reasons for requiring all students to pass algebra. It will be needed in trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, and physics. But most kids don’t take these subjects.

Succeeding at such an abstract topic teaches discipline and hard work. But
you could still teach a challenging math class without it being algebra. If you drop algebra because students can’t pass it why not drop other subjects that kids struggle with.

The failure rate for freshmen English is almost as high as algebra. Should we drop that as a requirement too?

My counter argument is that we already make these distinctions. Some kids
take physics, others don’t. Auto shop isn’t required despite the fact that most of us would benefit from knowledge of automobile workings.

It is extremely difficult to change anything in education. “I suffered through
it, so you should, too,” is the general philosophy of most communities.

Everyone wants educational reform, but your reform turns out to be anathema to my ideas and vice versa.

Well here is my reform. Stop requiring algebra for graduation.

(You can read more columns like this in the archives of Strictly Secondary.)

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anthony August 11, 2012 at 07:51 PM
Don't forget those Falcons over at St Felicitas. Believe it or not, way out here in the Manor is San Leandro too.
David August 12, 2012 at 01:21 AM
Rob, what Dan wrote. The backstop for teachers' pensions comes out of tax dollars and is not included in the per pupil spending. Local bond measures are not included in the per pupil spending etc etc. And you're only comparing high school versus much cheaper grade school educations. The facts are that urban Catholic schools teach the same population as urban public schools to a near universally better outcome for about the same $$ per pupil. Perhaps the public schools could take some lessons from the Catholic schools. The first one being, don't lower standards.
Susan August 16, 2012 at 07:25 PM
Algebra is ot only a math class but also helps the mind to think in an abstract way. We need this in our cshools. Kids need to use their minds and be taught to reason...It is a subject that challenges the thinking process. Please ddo not take away the challenges that students need to survive...
Marga Lacabe August 16, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Susan, how does algebra "challenge the thinking process"? How does it, for example, make you understand that the instinctive answer is not the correct one? How does algebra allow you to understand the political system of this country? The economic system? Make better decisions as to what path to take for your life? Nobody is arguing that algebra, per se, is bad or that nobody should study algebra. What I and other are arguing is that we must make decisions as to what are the most important subjects students should learn. It's enough for you to say "algrebra is good", you need to show why it's more important than history, political science, economics, civics, biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc. etc. Btw, I don't want to hear the BS that algebra is essential for science. Yep, if you want to become a scientist and understand everything mathematically you need to know algebra - but you can understand concepts without having to do the math yourself. Back when I was in college at Cal, they had a series of "science without maths" classes - physics 10, astro 10, etc, where non-science students could learn the fundamentals of those disciplines without having to run the numbers. I never took one, but my friends did and they found them extremely useful. No reason why that could not be an alternative as well.
Fran August 16, 2012 at 08:40 PM
It does challenge the thinking process, BUT only if taught well. So if it's to be required and everyone needs to pass it, then I suggest hiring teaches that are good at teaching it. If half the class are going to tutors to pass it, there's obviously a problem. There's nothing worse than a sub-par math teacher, especially in the beginning, it really sets the stage for success or failure in the future.
El Louis August 16, 2012 at 09:12 PM
How can we think of rejecting basic fundamental math from our kids education? Algebra is so essential to understanding the most basic of principles of life. If an adult can't conceive of a use for algebra (or the application of it) in their daily life they need to think harder. In the piece itself, Jerry links a video to a math teacher who rethought how to teach math to kids in a more meaningful way, because the teacher believes that, "Math makes sense of the world. Math is the vocabulary of your own intuition." Algebra isn't some advanced math that is beyond the average person. Algebra just builds on, and makes use of, the basic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division--the bare minimum we expect our kids to learn). We should be training our kids to be agents in this world: creators, designers, thinkers, builders, innovators; we don't want, or need, them to be only users.
Marga Lacabe August 16, 2012 at 09:19 PM
So give me an example of how you use algebra (that's to say, the stuff taught in algebra 1) in your daily life.
Robert Marrujo August 16, 2012 at 10:23 PM
Algebra might not be something most of us use on a daily basis in our lives, but to remove it as a grad requirement would, to me, suggest that school exists simply to teach students the bare-bones fundamentals one needs to get through their day and nothing more. Algebra can be as mentally enriching as tackling the deeper meaning of a piece of literature or debating issues in a history class. If school was only about learning what we need to pay a bill and drive from point A to B to get to work, then you'd have to wipe out massive chunks of classes and curriculum. The more you get a student's mind to wrap itself around different and incrementally more complex topics, the easier it will be to learn the basic fundamental minutia that fills our days. Honestly, we're actually debating whether or not kids should stop taking math circa the age of 13-14 years old. Just how far behind is California in education that we have to get rid of 8th grade math just to save some face?
El Louis August 16, 2012 at 10:26 PM
How about computing my mpg? I drive 25 miles, starting with a full tank of gas (10 gallons), and I realize that I used half my tank when I reach my destination. What is my car's miles per gallon for that trip? Making change uses algebra. Computing interest payments uses algebra. Are you telling me you can't come up with a basic elementary example, Marga?
El Louis August 16, 2012 at 10:39 PM
Robert you have once again demonstrated why you are one of my favorite people in SL. You hit upon an important issue: the desire to hide the problems of our education system by lowering our expectations, instead of addressing the issue of system falling further and further behind most of the world.
Marga Lacabe August 16, 2012 at 10:56 PM
No, as I said above those are calculations that are taught in pre-algebra (7th grade math, when I was in school) not in Algebra 1. Algebra 1 is mostly quadratic equations, if I well remember, when do you use those?
Marga Lacabe August 16, 2012 at 11:00 PM
Robert, the problem is that schools as they stand today do not teach kids the bare bones fundamentals. They don't teach them how to read a newspaper, how to recognize the flaws on arguments, how to think critically and so forth. They don't teach them history nor social sciences and they barely teach physical sciences. So we end up with a population of people who might be able to solve a quadratic equation - but chances are they'll never have to - but who can't make an informed decision as to who to vote for, which policies to support, how to invest their own assets, and so forth. I still have yet to hear anyone explain why they believe algebra is more important than any of the other subjects they are comfortable with children not learning.
Fran August 17, 2012 at 12:10 AM
Call it dumbing down or whatever you want. But kids are dropping out of school because they can't pass algebra, a subject they will less likely need than say a HS diploma. My son did horribly in 8th grade algebra, probably part of it was due to not learning the basics leading up to it. It probably didn't help that he went through 3 teachers that year, one of which up and left in the middle of class. Last year he did better and passed by taking an extra math in lieu of History, which I was pissed about. No history, wtf?! I don't like the fact schools push kids through without them knowing the subject matter, and it's hard for a parent to gauge the extent of the problem because they do not get letter grades until grade 6. It's below grade level, at grade level, or above grade level, which quite frankly tells me squat about his intellectuality or lack thereof.
El Louis August 17, 2012 at 12:50 AM
First, Algebra I is not "mostly" anything. It encompasses a variety of problem-solving skills. Second, quadratic equations are a part of Algebra II, a more advanced class. But besides that point, the reason that math (and science for that matter) are emphasized in education is because if you consider the overall performance of students in these subjects, it is usually much lower than performance in English/History. STEM subjects are integral to students' formation of foundational life skills, that is problem-solving, critical thinking, analysis. For the most part, the way that all subjects are currently taught is inadequate and so it cannot be said that English/History courses teach these skills any better, but these are the skills that allow students to take intelligent action in their lives. So, although some may argue that an advanced math course such as say, calculus, is not necessary for one's daily life, to argue that algebra I (a fairly basic, foundational math) is not needed is to limit the ability of students to succeed and to relegate them to reliance on technology rather than fostering their own cognition. All subjects should be taught because they are all important, but they should all be taught in a meaningful way, one that relays to students their benefits. Your opinion that "Alg has no use in daily life" only serves to show how ineffective education has been in imparting this knowledge to students.
Marga Lacabe August 17, 2012 at 01:48 AM
Here is a link to the sample Algebra 1 STAR test questions: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sr/documents/rtqalg1.pdf As you can see quadratic equations are taught and tested as part of Algebra 1. Indeed, the get the most test questions out of the 4 different areas. None of the questions, btw, have anything to do with anything you would do in real life such as computing your mileage or interest payments. That, as I said, is for more elementary classes. So, again, if I'm mistaken in my opinion that algebra 1 has no use in daily life, by all means show me how I'm wrong. When, for example, would you need to know the skills that come from figuring out X if you know that x(square} + x=42? When in your daily life have you had to graph something like y=-x(square) + 3? Yes, I'm sure that there figuring it out can help with your intellectual development. But I think figuring out the causes of the French, Mexican and Russian revolutions will be more challenging, more fun and use much more of your critical thinking skills. It's not surprising that students do worse in math than they do in English and History. That's because while they are only taught elementary English and history, they are taught advanced math, way too early, without adequate foundation and still, without any actual need. Why not balance things and give kids a more rounded education?
Leah Hall August 20, 2012 at 04:28 PM
"To Survive, a Catholic School Retools for a Wealthier Market" NY Times 8/19/2012 Thought some Patch readers might be interested in this article about St. Stephen's Catholic School in Manhattan. (An excerpt) "...In some states, Catholic schools have benefited from expansions of voucher programs that allow some students, usually those in poor neighborhoods, to attend private school at public expense. But other schools have taken the approach of St. Stephen, by reinventing themselves with new features to bring higher-income students into the fold." http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/20/nyregion/to-survive-some-catholic-schools-rebrand-to-lure-wealthier-families.html?pagewanted=all
David August 20, 2012 at 05:20 PM
A Catholic school on the *Upper East Side* has some more upper class students. Gee, that's hard-hitting reporting. You do realize that's one of the richest areas of the entire nation? As for "other schools" the article lists...none. (I'm at a loss as to how a "Spanish immersion" school automatically correlates to fishing for more affluent students, nor does taking a grant from the Gates Foundation).
Leah Hall August 20, 2012 at 07:17 PM
No pleasing fact-checker-in-chief, David X, apparently. The other schools mentioned in the article: St. Therese in Seattle and Holy Rosary, in Tacoma must be unorthodox or something /Catholic/ schools, then? Selling points for St. Stephen of Hungary's new niche serving wealthier white neighborhood families was it enabled a way for the school to stop bleeding enrollment and money (it was once designated for closing). The report also mentions that forty-six Archdiocese of New York Catholic schools have been shuttered since 2006.
David August 20, 2012 at 11:30 PM
Leah those are the only other schools mentioned. Again, how does "Spanish immersion" or taking a Gates grant mean the schools are fishing for higher-income students? I don't know and the author doesn't state.
Leah Hall August 21, 2012 at 12:39 AM
Cool, St. Therese and Holy Rosary are indeed bona fide Catholic schools... Whew. As for your other problems, my read of the article and the folks interviewed doesn't yield quite the same conclusion - no surprise there either, I suppose. It sounds like changes have come at the cost of less diversity and offer "extras" more in line with the best independent schools in Manhattan. These extras include progressive teaching practices, hands on learning, smaller groups, more teacher flexibility than public schools, rebranding it to parents who could afford tuition, etc. and so on, combined with a traditional "...dicipline and values-based approach....elements that have fallen out of fashion at most nonreligious schools"
David August 21, 2012 at 02:19 AM
Ok Leah, one catholic school in one extremely wealthy area changed its style slightly. The article lists two other schools with no evidence that the schools did anything that directly resulted in higher income students enrolling. Getting money from bill gates ( a grant) doesn't cause that, nor does starting a Spanish program necessarily. So you're left with one school in one of the richest zip codes as your example (of what, it not clear either). Now that's some awesome journalism.
Leah Hall August 21, 2012 at 02:36 AM
I am having some trouble parsing your critique. It appears you are defending the catholic schools going only for those who are disavantaged and giving them a chance. It appears you have gone for your hidden progressive and I applaud you for it. The catholic schools are to be lauded for the big impact they have made in many children's lives. In this, I think we are in agreement. I don't think Catholic schools are the best target for public subsidy as I do not think they want the restrictions such as no prayer and no spiritial formation that would go along with public dollars. ie, they would look a lot like a charter school which I do not think the Catholic schools want. However, why deny the Catholic schools the chance to entrepreneurial in capturing the middle market of tuitions between 10k and 22k. This is a market where most independent schools can't compete and the Catholic schools have the chance to own it. It is also a very good price point with a very large demographic. Why are you for denying the chance for the Catholics to act like Mormons and be good capitalists?
David August 21, 2012 at 01:05 PM
Leah. 1) your article actually isn't germane to any actually posted here. Furthermore, it's a poorly-written article that actually provides no evidence supporting the article's or your assertion that Catholic schools are significantly increasing their pool of affluent students. Read it again. There is ZERO data except one school on the upper East Side. Regarding the other 2 schools mentioned, there is ZERO information as to the affluence (or poverty) of the new students. 2) in other posts, I have defended the Catholic schools as performing well, particularly when compared to their urban public school counterparts. It stands to reason (and it's true) that they do well compared to other public and private school counterparts, particularly on a per-pupil spending basis. Despite your fantasy, this article does nothing to change that fact. 3) I have criticized you for wanting to deny children the choice that people like yourself enjoy in sending your child to whatever school you want. 4) Despite your purported baptism into the Catholic faith and internalized (false) belief that you have some knowledge of Catholic catechism, you provide ample evidence through your anti-Catholic bigotry and other patently wrong statements that, indeed, in reality, you have very little actual knowledge of both Catholicism and Catholic schools. For example, of course, Catholic schools are non-profit and always have been, and always will be. But thanks for dropping the idiot clown act.
David August 21, 2012 at 03:45 PM
Let me help you out on the grade level on an absolute scale: "Below grade level" = Below median ability of most dirt-poor, backwards Mississippi schools. "At grade level" = Below the median ability of the most backwoods of small-town schools in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. "Above grade level" = around 40-60th percentile of a lower-middle class suburban Tennessee school.
Leah Hall August 21, 2012 at 03:58 PM
Uh oh, I guess I hit another David nerve. So sensitive, get this gummy bear some lidocaine. As for myself, I guess I'll ask forgiveness from God once more and align my spine. ;-)
David August 21, 2012 at 04:04 PM
And now you're back to the idiot clown act.
Leah Hall August 21, 2012 at 04:08 PM
So you say. : )
Leah Hall August 21, 2012 at 04:32 PM
A colleague sent me this recent article, I thought other Patch readers might be interested: NEWS Seeking a New Equation for Math Education by Lekan Oguntoyinbo , 8/17/2012 (from Diverse: Issues in Higher Education) http://diverseeducation.com/article/17308c1/seeking-a-new-equation-for-math-education.html Not Making the Grade "Many experts give our nation’s schools a poor grade for their approach to teaching mathematics and for their preparation of mathematics teachers. While many policymakers make much of data that suggest children in the United States lag behind many other advanced countries in math, many experts call for a change in mathematics education, particularly at the elementary and K-12 level..." "...the kind of training that teachers of mathematics get in college and in graduate school has a direct impact on students’ interest in mathematics at the K-12 level. Most teachers, he says, teach to the test and don’t know how to inspire students to develop a love for mathematics." "They learn how to teach, plan a lesson, but not how to motivate them to like mathematics,.... In some instances...math teachers usually know no more than what is in the text of the one math subject they are teaching that term." "That’s analogous to someone teaching ‘Hamlet’ having not read any other Shakespeare plays,” ...to teach a subject you have to know more than just that subject."
Fran August 25, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Just came across this article, which pretty much sums up what I've been saying as far as economic models being a bunch of BS. http://www.alternet.org/economy/major-economic-ideas-we-live-are-shockingly-flimsy?page=0%2C0
David August 25, 2012 at 03:20 PM
Fran, there is no such thing as a perfect economic model. Why? Because economics involves humans, and there is no such thing as homo economicus. Just like sociology, psychology, and all the other "social sciences" are not sciences at all. I never posited that oil is "perfectly" or "efficiently" priced, but there are models that predict prices of oil fairly well. If supply is reduced 10%, you can expect prices to roughly double, ceterus paribus. If demand goes down 10%, prices will drop by roughly half, again, ceterus paribus. You may notice that the price of food will go up by 6-15% in the next few months. Why? The supply of corn is likely to drop about 30-40%. If you increase the minimum wage, fewer teenagers are hired for summer jobs. Why? Because there's a conspiracy against teenagers? No. Because they're not productive enough to be hired at the new, higher wage. You know what, Fran, Darwin's theory of evolution doesn't adequately explain a lot of things either. Do you think we should ignore it then in high school biology class? Do you ignore it? Do you think it's invalid?


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