Teach “numeracy” for 21st-century citizens instead of Algebra II, argues political scientist Andrew Hacker in The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions. The algebra-to-calculus track is a waste of time for everyone but future mathematicians and a few engineers, he argues in a New York Times op-ed.
Calculus and higher math have a place, of course, but it’s not in most people’s everyday lives. What citizens do need is to be comfortable reading graphs and charts and adept at calculating simple figures in their heads.
Teacher Wars‘ author Dana Goldstein, hated math in high school, she writes in Slate. She’s sympathetic to Hacker’s argument that requiring students to learn abstract math is driving up dropout rates, especially at colleges that serve disadvantaged students.
“We are really destroying a tremendous amount of talent—people who could be talented in sports writing or being an emergency medical technician, but can’t even get a community college degree,” Hacker told her.
He teaches at Queens College, part of the City University of New York system, which enrolls many students from low-income families. Fifty-seven percent of CUNY students fail the required algebra course, according to a 2009 faculty report. The failure rate fell to 44 percent (still very high), when students were allowed to substitute statistics, a later study showed.
For two years, (Hacker) taught what is essentially a course in civic numeracy. Hacker asked students to investigate the gerrymandering of Pennsylvania congressional districts by calculating the number of actual votes Democrats and Republicans received in 2012. The students discovered that it took an average of 181,474 votes to win a Republican seat, but 271,970 votes to win a Democratic seat.
Goldstein found Hacker’s argument “pretty convincing.” However, her math-loving husband, a computer programmer, wasn’t sold. “Math helps us understand the world around us!” he said.
Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, also was dubious “about any call to make math—or any other subject — less abstract.”
Some community colleges are using Carnegie’s Statways and Quantways courses — statistics and numeracy — to move more remedial students to college-level math. I think it makes sense for students who aren’t pursuing STEM careers. But I’d hate to give up on algebra in high school. That shuts the door early.