Against Algebra II

Advanced algebra should be an elective for motivated math students, not a requirement, argues novelist Nicholson Baker in a Harper’s cover story (subscribers only), Wrong Answer.
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Baker isn’t the first to question whether future arts majors need advanced math, notes Popular Science.

In 1950, only 25 percent of students in the U.S. were taking algebra, while the Soviet Union was churning out mathematicians, writes Baker. The National Defense Education Act, passed in 1958, raised math requirements, “creating a lot of unhappy students who, as they struggle through required math course after required math course, become discouraged and learn to hate school.”

The Common Core won’t help, Baker argues.

Algebra 2 Common Core is “a highly efficient engineer for the creation of math rage: a dead scrap of repellant terminology, a collection of spiky, decontextualized, multistep mathematical black-box techniques that you must practice over and over and get by heart in order to be ready to do something interesting later on, when the time comes,” he writes.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan sees Algebra II as “the mystic portal to prosperity,” Baker complains.

Baker proposes “a new, one-year teaser course for ninth graders, which would briefly cover a few techniques of algebraic manipulation, some mind stretching geometric proofs, some nifty things about parabolas and conic sections, and even perhaps a soft-core hint of the infinitesimal, change-explaining powers of calculus.”

After that, advanced math would be reserved for those who really want to learn it.

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  1. As a science person who took a lot of math, I agree. The students who want the higher math classes need for them to be rigorous. The rest of the students should learn to be completely proficient in arithmetic, fractions, percents, ratios, decimals, etc, and some basic algebra. Then they’d know the math that people encounter every day but wouldn’t be slowing down the students who might actually need to solve systems of equations with multiple variables. That being said, they should also be told that some folks in business use some higher math. A lot of students who KNOW that they don’t want to go into STEM might be considering business.

    • Lulu,

      Unfortunately, far too many students graduate from high school without knowing how to actually add, subtract, multiply, divide, handle percentages/fractions/ratios, and will have a very difficult time in any major field, including business.


  2. I guess American society has become so dumbed down that Algebra II is considered ‘advanced’ now. Give it 15-20 more years, and even Algebra I will be considered ‘advanced’… Then what?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Algebra II has always been considered advanced. Education people have actually been trying to do whatever the opposite of dumbing down high school math requirements would be. They have encouraged students to take math past Algebra I. More high school students than ever before are now taking a course called Algebra II.

      Of course, many of those courses aren’t real Algebra II, because real Algebra II *is* advanced and lots of students would crash and burn in such a course. Years ago, nobody tried to get them to take Algebra II. Maybe they took “business math.” Or they took no more math at all.

  3. Claire Boston says:

    The problem with math as it is taught in our schools today is
    1) the majority of elementary school teachers are not proficient in math themselves
    2) they pass on their fear and dislike to math to their students (more than one teacher in elementary told my daughter that “math is hard”)
    3) they focus so much on making math ‘fun’ that the kids don’t learn the basics in elementary
    4) by the time they get to high school they are either a) turned off by math, b) don’t bother to try anyone because they believe it is too ‘hard’, c) have missed enough of the basics, or were so poorly taught the basics, that they can’t handle Algebra I without extensive remediation.

    As an example, my daughter, who by the way absolutely loves math and plans to study engineering and architecture when she graduates this year, had a real struggle with doing units conversions in chemistry. We finally figured out that none of her math teachers in elementary had shown students step-by-step how to do a units conversion with showing all the units and doing it one step at a time; instead they gave them a ‘short cut’ which none of them really understood, but which worked well enough for simple problems but broke down with more advanced problems. We had screaming matches, crying jags, temper tantrums, you name it, when we made her sit down and go back to the basics. “That’s not the way the book told us to do it!” was her mantra. Once we got through the emotional breakdown and got the arms uncrossed from the defensive stance, we were able to show her how to do it the way we learned in school (I’m an MS in polymer chemistry and her dad is an MS in chemical engineering, both with advanced math under our belts).

    I love math, have always been good at it, but I have trouble understanding today’s elementary math books because they are disorganized, don’t clearly lay out the rules for math, and insist on ‘playing games’ with tricky word problems as a substitute for actually teaching the kids how to do math. First you learn how to do the math itself, THEN you learn how to apply it via setting up the equations yourself; most elementary math classes skip right to the word problems, and the teachers don’t have the faintest clue of how to teach deductive reasoning to the kids to enable them to understand how to set up the problems themselves. Therefore, the idea that ‘math is hard’ becomes a reality, reinforced by teachers who can’t actually do the work correctly themselves.

    • Claire,

      I agree with you 100%, if the student doesn’t learn how do the math in the first place (see my post under ‘How much math does a elementary education major need’), they’ll never get the concepts of how to actually do math correctly, and Algebra II/Trig was at the last of the requirements for students who were planning on going to college in the early 1980’s, pre-calc (which was the highest math course our district offered) was pretty much the area of I.B. students, back when that program worked students to death and didn’t have all the political garbage injected into it).

      Of course, I consider the following math subjects to be advanced:

      Geometry (plane and proof)
      Algebra II/Trig
      Finite Math/Stats
      Symbolic/Digital Logic
      Differential Eqns
      Linear and Abstract Algebra
      Numerical Analysis

      But that’s what I consider ‘college level’ mathematics (at least that’s what the comp sci requirements were back in 1981 at my univ for acceptable math courses beyond calc I and II).


    • Roger Sweeny says:

      This may turn out to be one of the most important lessons of her life if she learns that “the way the book told us to do it” isn’t necessarily the best way. Sometimes, assigned books are even wrong.

    • (more than one teacher in elementary told my daughter that “math is hard”)

      When did Mattel start manufacturing Barbies that can get into ed school?

  4. In regard to Claire Boston’s comment which seems right on point about elementary school and word problems, is anyone else concerned it will get even worse with Common Core?

  5. Kirk Parker says:


    There have *always* been Barbies in Ed School.

  6. I think the most straightforward Math curriculum would be to offer these options:

    8th-9th-10th-11th-12th Grade


    Algebra I – Geometry – Algebra II – PreCal/Trig – Introductory Calculus


    PreAlgebra – Algebra I – Geometry – Algebra II – PreCal/Trig


    Pre-Algebra – Algebra I – Geometry – Algebra II – Financial Math

    Get rid of ‘Honors’ and other such designations. They are used to confuse employers and colleges. Algebra II would be and should be exactly what most people expect Algebra II to be (more on lines from Algebra I; polynomials; polynomial operations; quadratic equations; introduction to ‘i’ and complex numbers; and some basic factoring). How hard is that?

    • Sigh. People who set up constructs like this tend to be in the 115+ IQ range and have little comprehension of the abilities of people with below average IQ’s. “How hard is that?” For someone with an IQ of 85, it may be impossibly hard. And no, 85 is not mentally retarded, it’s just well below average.

      • And on a 15-pt standard deviation scale, a sixth of the population is 85 or below.

        It seems ridiculous to put students into Algebra II in 11th grade whether or not they are ready. It seems even more ridiculous to tell a sixth of the population ‘Sorry, high school is not for you. Twiddle your thumbs and fail classes until you are old enough to drop out and get a job.’

        Any sort of reasonable reform and truth in labeling is going to involve either kicking students out of high school earlier or re-creating the now mostly phased out General Math/Pre-Algebra/Algebra A/B (two-year sequence for Algebra 1)/Consumer Math classes which were aimed at students in this category. Frankly I’d prefer the second one along with a strengthened vocational curriculum.

  7. Trying to have all high school students pass Algebra 2 is a strategy that arises from the reality that there are some who, though they may have bad preparation or a year or two of resisting math, or are not that great at math, AND YET, with passing Algebra 2 and some additional maturity, they MIGHT then qualify for STEM careers. The problem is that most of the underqualified/uninterested students who get assigned to Algebra 2 don’t fit that profile. Most who struggle in Algebra 2 are too far behind in math to catch up, or they are correct in their predictions about what careers they want to pursue. If we had better ways of identifying those students who, though weak in math up until Algebra 2, want to and were likely to be able to master it, we could avoid torturing students and/or weakening Algebra 2 curriculum.

    • EB,

      As someone who has worked in a STEM field for 31 years, I can tell you that if you’re struggling with Algebra/Algebra II, you’ll have a very hard time making it past the math requirements for most STEM careers, as a side note, I tutor nursing majors, and if you want to see how many of them usually are gone by the end of the first year due to the fact that they can’t handle algebra, take a guess.

      The stuff they have to know is stuff I learned how to do in middle and high school, though I don’t actually know the level of math required on the NCLEX or most state nursing exams.

      I’ve had students ask me what the difference between 50 mcg (micrograms) and 50 milligrams, and I tell them, the difference between a healthy preemie and a dead one, that’s when they start understanding unit issues in math.