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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Algebra: Gateway or barrier?

“What is so magical about algebra as a math requirement?” asked Eloy Ortiz Oakley, former chancellor of California’s community college system and now head of the College Futures Foundation. For low-income and minority students who aspire to college, it’s a “killing field.”

Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, England

Others see rigorous math, such as eighth-grade algebra, as the gateway to high-paying STEM careers, writes Joe Napolitano on The 74.

Eighth-graders in affluent suburbs have a chance to take algebra, then go on to calculus by 12th grade, says William Crombie, director of professional development at The Algebra Project.“In urban and even rural high schools, they are struggling to accomplish algebra in the 9th grade.”

Many students fell far behind in math when schools were closed, Napolitano writes. "Both California and New York are changing — and, in some cases lowering — math standards so that students meet basic requirements for high school graduation."

Some "try to fix equity by trying to lower the ceiling and remove advanced math options for everyone, or replace them with superficial areas like ‘data science,’”argues Boaz Barak, a computer science professor at Harvard University. That's "counterproductive and harmful."

Such courses, while marketed as alternative pathways, are really “off-ramps” from any quantitative major in college, Barak said. Data science is “a great field,” he added, but for students to grasp the concept, they need a background in statistics, computer science and math: linear algebra and some calculus.
“This means that it can’t be taught properly at the high school level,” he said. “What you can teach is a data literacy course, which teaches you basic tools such as spreadsheets and some notions about plotting data and correlations. The latter is a fine course to teach — but it’s not a math course.”

Black students need access to algebra classes, writes Lane Wright on Education Post. "Across the country, one in four high schools serving mostly Black or Latino students don’t offer Algebra I, a basic step toward college acceptance." He cites a 2018 study by ExcelinEd.

Colleges should rethink math requirements, he writes. Students shouldn't have to learn math they'll never use. But, as long as students need algebra to get into college, high schools must offer it.

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