In response to a Tennessee proposal to requires four years of math for graduation, an algebra teacher writes that not everybody can learn algebra or needs to know.

It was totally crazy to ever require algebra — let alone the geometry all must now take. When will the out of touch realize that some are left brained and most are right brained?… Here is an algebra problem that any Algebra I student will be taught. Factor 8Xsquared -95X -96 I will bet that very few of your staff or even the state school board could do it.

I do not know anyone who has ever factored anything outside of a classroom. Have you ever rationalized a denominator?

Why is this man a math teacher?

Colby Cosh links to a discussion on whether math has progressive uses. It starts with this post:

I’ve come to realize that probably one reason I struggled with algebra, geometry et.al., was that it seemed to me that these were basically reactionary academic disciplines, useful for designing weaponry or potentially repressive computer technology, but not with any obvious humanistic or social positive uses.

If I’m wrong about this, I’d appreciate it if people could show me how this discipline can have progressive uses.

I also feel this could be useful in developing better ways of teaching higher mathematics if such uses could be found.

Read it for the philosophy joke.

There seem to be quite a few “educators’ who do not place much value on *knowledge* and who indeed are hostile to the whole idea of knowledge acquisition as an important part of life.

This attitude certainly transmits itself to the students.

I’m with the Tennessee proposal. Basic algebra and geometry really aren’t “higher math” at all. Cutting off math education for most students at fractions and decimals makes about as much sense as cutting off literature teaching at “Fun with Dick and Jane”.

I can’t resist.

Right/left brain? Are teachers still being taught this? Note to teachers: Read up on real brain research.

Maybe you struggled with math because of poor teaching.

Of course, maybe the writer is correct in an odd sort of way:

Can’t do algebra-run for office! 😉

Unless their curriculum is far different than NYS, that is not an Algebra 1 problem. Algebra 1 problems factor quickly into roots that are either integers or simple fractions (1/2, 3/4, etc). The use of the quadratic equation is reserved for Algebra 2, which is the third year of HS math. Maybe he should have graphed it before he wrote his letter. Integer roots or simple fractional roots? Nah. That is not a “basic” math problem.

I wanted to leave a further note: I teach an extended math class. almost everyone can learn to factor simple quadratics by re-introducing them to the concept of the area of a rectangle and linking the two concepts. With that concept, repetition, algebra tiles and patience, it can be done. 🙂 Also, graphing a quadratic on the x-y plane is very helpful to show the students what is occurring during the progression of x versus y. By the time the students get to Algrebra 2 and the use of the quadratic equation, they are happy to see even not-so-simple quadratics have solutions!

I thought the challenge to factor 8x^2-95x-96 was a was a little awkward. It would have been better to ask for the roots of the expression since factoring greatly complicates the expression and determining the roots would be the only reason to “factor” it. I am also curious if they meant “x^2” instead of “8x^2” as this would enable a simple factorization. Perhaps the original article misquoted him? Just a WAG.

As for never factoring anything outside the classroom, perhaps the teacher would like to meet and engineer one day.

The following came from one of the links provided by Joanne Jacobs:

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http://www.rabble.ca/babble/ultimatebb.php?ubb=get_topic&f=21&t=001692

I agree. The uses of mathematics are primarily to serve the elites and powerful within society. Thanks to mathematics, the United States was building rocket ships to collect pebbles on the moon while they had hundreds of millions of their own citizens at home starving to death. Mathematics is great for building nuclear war heads, weapons technology, software to line the pockets of millionaire fat cats, or creating non-sense to feed the bullshit rationale for junk sciences such as economics. But for the poor working family just trying to get by, mathematics has very little to offer.

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> while they had hundreds of millions of their own

> citizens at home starving to death

This is delusional. One can only wonder how many years of public education this person has received and passed?

I might try to design a sewer system without using math, but I doubt it would hold water. On th other hand, engineers often go their entire career without writing anything comprehensible, so why we gotta know English? Huh?

Following the thread is … well, funny for most folks. I’m always amazed at all the kool-aid drinkers out there and further amazed at how far out in space (not just out in left field – but out in left space).

I’ve been taking courses at the local community college with my daughters (THAT can make you feel old – but I’m in a speciality and they are just starting college). I ran across a print rag promoting all the touchy-feely, feel good, incense, aroma sensory, etc stuff that I thought had pass away long ago. What I found was that some of those folk never grew out of it and now peddle it (I know, I know, they believe in it).

–I do not know anyone who has ever factored anything outside of a classroom. Have you ever rationalized a denominator?

yeah, cooking recipes never ask for any math. nor do mortgage loan calculations, a calculation of the number of necessary paint gallons, understanding your heating bill, or converting celsius to fahrenheit or vice versa.

not only is it true that algebra is too hard, but i see no need for 3 years of history or 4 of english. whoever is going to need to know what a gerund is? and what person will ever need to know who Charlemagne was? surely there’s no need to know which King Henry did what. and those foreign language reqs! did you really need to know plus ca change?

why have high school at all? just go straight to daycare.

This guy may have become a math teacher the same way a history teacher in a middle school where I work has become a science teacher: they needed an extra science teacher and told her to start teaching the 6th graders science; a subject she’s never taught before.

I find it interesting how highly some people value their education. I can honestly say that learning algebra and knowing who Charlemagne was has really had little impact on my life. I occasionally tease and am sometimes shamelessly prideful of a math SAT score that was higher than my husband and oldest son (both engineers) even though I never took higher math classes. But, until recently, I have never encountered a need for anything more difficult than fractions in the real world. I now have found a need for Trig – computer animation. Because I want to animate, I’ll now learn Trig. Would it have helped me to have been taught it 30 years ago when I wasn’t interested? Not really.

I believe that higher math and other classes are important for those people who are interested. But for those who aren’t, who are we to tell them that they need to be engineers? I feel that the “Expect More, Get More” philosophy is going to back fire for teens who like nothing better than to rebel. There is a rising unrest amongst our upper middle class teens that is making them determined to prove to our generation that they do not need all the education and money that we value so highly. Funny how we finally feel like we have risen above our blue collar roots and now our children are out to beat their white collar roots.

Grad school mom,

I have to take issue with your points.

Although knowing charlemagne may not have impacted your life, are you saying you shouldn’t have learned any history? How do you learn only the parts of history that will matter to you as an adult? The same goes for high school level math (alegbra, geometry, trig)? I find it surprising that you didn’t take trig in high school, when I was in high school, someone at grade level would take it as a junior and we were required to take 4 years of math to graduate. It’s a lot easier to learn a forgotten subject than it is to start from scratch, and its a lot easier to understand how relearning a subject would help you if had some exposure to it. If all you have is a hammer, you better hope the world only has nails.

I think too many people go to college, and I think the standard for graduating from high school should be hard enough that the bottom 10-20% have a really hard time graduating. I also don’t think main problem with education is upper middle class burn out, I think its too low of a standard for the bottom 30-50% of students.

As for what to do about it? I would like to see more vocational training, and different levels of high school degrees, perhaps letting some people graduate after grade 10 with a lesser degree.

“There is a rising unrest amongst our upper middle class teens that is making them determined to prove to our generation that they do not need all the education and money that we value so highly…”

Sure, GradSchoolMom, and many of us learned that a stint or two at what once was termed “honest work” was highly instructive and a positive tonic for such adolescent angst and rebellion.

Starting in 1961, I spent several summers loading trucks and rail cars in a cannery. It was phenomenal money for the time, but it also was physcial labor, 48 hours per week, and it sure dispelled any horseshit about what life might be like without the advantages of an education.

When our older son was going through the usual rebelliousness, a month or so in a garage door factory dispelled all that nonsense for him, too. He was a 19-year-old doing what was a summer job, but a dead-end job in terms of much of anything except a paycheck. And he was working with adults who were supporting families on those paychecks. The point is not to look down on those folk; the lesson is, if you have alternatives to that working life — such as college, to prepare for a career of some kind — you will be wise to explore them.

In other words, give such adolescents the chance to contemplate life without “all the education and money” — as a lifetime busboy, for instance. The experience usually provides at least a modicum of seasoning and maturity for the adolescent in question.

I believe that higher math and other classes are important for those people who are interested.

Yeah, but what you and I think of as higher math are worlds apart. I’m not asking them to prove Fermat’s little theorem. I think they should be as versant with math as we expect them to be with English and History. That means understanding trigonometry well enough to determine the height of a building given a triangle and a measuring tape on the ground. That means knowing enough about history to understand where the British Empire came from.

Is your point really that education is strictly utilitarian? It has no value to create a better person, a better citizen? Because why have high school at all then? Send them strsight to vo tech. or be like Europe and start tracking them young and only send the high performing ones to college.

IKids aren’t interested in the Civil war, so they shouldn’t bother learning it? Your argument seems to be that for math; is it that for everything else too? Is there nothing that you think kids should be made to learn in order to be decent citizens?

I really enjoy learning peoples’ views on education on this blog. Sometimes I find it frustrating that I can’t ask more questions. Yes, I believe that a free public education’s purpose is Utilitarian – basic knowledge that American’s need to survive, not necessarily in order to be well off. Students should be taught to read, write and do enough math to pay bills, manage debt, measure something and follow recipes. That is an oversimplification, but you get my point. They should also know enough about history to appreciate what they have and imagine what could happen in the future and enough about science to teach them to question how things work. Art, music and sports are as important to teach as writing because they are various ways that humans can learn to express themselves. I am interested in understanding why the educational system is failing at accomplishing even my low expectations, most of which should be being taught in Elementary schools.

Walter: “As for never factoring anything outside the classroom, perhaps the teacher would like to meet and engineer one day.”

Compare this to: “Iâ€™ve come to realize that probably one reason I struggled with algebra, geometry et.al., was that it seemed to me that these were basically reactionary academic disciplines, useful for designing weaponry or potentially repressive computer technology, but not with any obvious humanistic or social positive uses.”

Yes, there really are people who think that engineers just develop weapons and “repressive computer technology”. The water and sewer system that kept them from dying of typhoid and cholera, the roofs over their heads, the cars they drive to work, and the electricity that powers their computers (repressive or otherwise) must have all come about by magic.

And many of those people work in our school systems, or worse, teach education courses.

I think the topic was danced around but not addressed head on.. contextualize it (if we can.. I question some teachers ability to show children why.. still not sure how they are qualified to teach but they are) If we make it applicable don’t we make it purposeful? Empowering?

Oh those painful classes of practicing algorithms instead of applying math to solve problems.. still in my poor teacher memories as nightmarish times in my math life!

J. Stone

This foolish math teacher is one reason why I would love to see part-time teachers enter schools. Imagine having an engineer teach the class (granted, one who is able, willing, eager and passionate to do so) who could tell the class from experience why factoring and the quadratic equation are so important!

I can’t imagine why someone as whiny and dispassionate about the subject as the TN teacher cited in this article is teaching anywhere, let alone why he pursued a teaching certificate to begin with. Enthusiasm and passion are infectious; but so is an apathetic, enervating attitude towards the subject – whatever subject – your are teaching