Instead of algebra, ‘citizen statistics’

Is Algebra Necessary? asks political scientist Andrew Hacker in the New York Times.

A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.

My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus.

Inability to do math — specifically algebra — is the major academic reason so many students fail to complete high school, Hacker writes. He proposes “citizen statistics” as an alternative.

. . . it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.

It could, for example, teach students how the Consumer Price Index is computed, what is included and how each item in the index is weighted — and include discussion about which items should be included and what weights they should be given.

This need not involve dumbing down. Researching the reliability of numbers can be as demanding as geometry. More and more colleges are requiring courses in “quantitative reasoning.” In fact, we should be starting that in kindergarten.

I think it is dumbing down math — so far down that it will close the door on many careers. But it’s better to teach some math than stick unprepared, unmotivated students in dumbed-down classes labeled “algebra” and “geometry.”

Frustrated by huge failure rates in remedial math, some community colleges are teaching “quantitative reasoning” rather than algebra to students who don’t have STEM ambitions. That makes sense. But it’s an admission of failure.

Hacker also wants to see classes in the history and philosophy of math, which he thinks would draw more math majors.

Why not mathematics in art and music — even poetry — along with its role in assorted sciences? The aim would be to treat mathematics as a liberal art, making it as accessible and welcoming as sculpture or ballet.

Maybe more people would major in math if it didn’t require learning math, but what would be the point?

A commenter recommends The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure, which sounds like a cool book.

Here’s how Times readers responded to Hacker’s essay.

Yes, algebra is necessary, responds cognitive scientist Dan Willingham.

First, it’s not true that otherwise talented students are dropping out because of algebra. Motivation, self-regulation, social control and a feeling of connectedness and engagement at school are as important as grades, and a low grade in English is as accurate a predictor of failure as a low grade in math.

Second, “the difficulty students have in applying math to everyday problems they encounter is not particular to math. Transfer is hard.”

The problem is that if you try to meet this challenge by teaching the specific skills that people need, you had better be confident that you’re going to cover all those skills. Because if you teach students the significance of the Consumer Price Index they are not going to know how to teach themselves the significance of projected inflation rates on their investment in CDs. Their practical knowledge will be specific to what you teach them, and won’t transfer.

Well-educated people can learn on the job, Willingham writes. “Hacker overlooks the possibility that the mathematics learned in school, even if seldom applied directly, makes students better able to learn new quantitative skills.”

Kids who can’t understand math usually can’t read well either, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. “The very skills involved in reading (including understanding abstract concepts) are also involved in algebra and other complex mathematics.”

Who needs calculus?

Calculus is the wrong goal for 90 percent of students, argued Harvey Mudd Professor Arthur T. Benjamin at the Ciudad de las Ideas in Puebla, Mexico.

“For the last 200 years, the mathematics that we’ve learned starts with arithmetic and algebra, and everything we do after that is taking us toward one subject, calculus. I think that is the wrong mathematical goal for 90 percent of our students,” he says. “We’re now living in an age of information and data, and the mathematics that will be most relevant to our daily lives is probability and statistics.” Only some professions require calculus. Everyone reads—and many misunderstand—media reports about health, science, and the environment that contain statistics. Better literacy in probability and stats would benefit everyone.

Most students don’t make it to calculus — or statistics. I didn’t. As a journalist — a notoriously innumerate trade — I frequently had to struggle with statistics to understand reports. I found my arithmetic skills very useful.

The Carnegie Foundation‘s redesign of community college math curricula stresses statistics and quantitative reasoning for students who aren’t headed for STEM careers.

I wonder how high school math would change if students could choose between a STEM-prep or math-for-citizenship track. Would we let students opt out of the calculus track in ninth or tenth grade? How about the kids who keep flunking algebra?