My Response to the NYT Editorial on Algebra
Is Algebra necessary? asks a recent NYT Editorial.
What do you mean by Algebra? I ask.
The author, a political science professor, seems to mean Algebra as its Typically Taught in the US, not the kind of Algebra that asks fascinating questions like, “Every time we do something in mathematics, how do we undo it?” or “How can we know that properties we have observed about numbers are always true?” I have seen children from all walks of life and with various levels of prior mathematical success engage fully with these types of questions.
Aside from my usual complaint about being in a field where everybody claims expertise based on having had an education themselves, I object to the notion that Algebra is not for everyone because our school system has difficulties reaching children through our current set of practices.
Hacker’s proposal for Citizen Statistics, another attempt to make a curricular ghetto (remember Consumer Math anyone?), shows his naivete about our schools. He insists that he is not trying to make a vocational track yet such a class would inevitably be remedial. Hacker imagines this class as demographically balanced, democratically filled with children based on interest and ability, representing students from across racial and socioeconomic spectra. In truth, parents who have the resources and time to pursue academic and professional aspirations for their children would continue to make sure they were placed in a “true” college preparatory curriculum, leading to even greater inequities in our system. Remedial classes are overpopulated by students disenfranchised by our schools, leading to a second contradiction. Citizen Statistics presumes that schools and teachers will agree on the notion of “citizenship,” which is actually a hotly contested notion –– particularly when we are talking about the citizenship of students who struggle academically. A class whose purported goal is enfranchisement of the disenfranchised would be fraught from the start.
Hacker is correct that we are not teaching enough children meaningful mathematics in schools. The problem, however, is not Algebra. The problem is Algebra as Usual.