Andrew Hacker's New York Times Op-Ed–Is Algebra Necessary?–ran more than three weeks ago, but it is still generating blog posts and comments in a wave that could probably be described with some algebraic equation, but not by me.
I thought the wave had crested, but when Jennifer Ouellette posted on Scientific American a few days ago, I decided to say something about this. "Today we are defending algebra," she writes. "Again."
Hacker started this discussion by suggesting that algebra was too hard for most students and was a chief reason why many dropped out of high school. Further, it's unclear whether algebra helps many of us at work. In short, it doesn't do any of us much good later on, he argued.
Any science writer who has worked in a newsroom knows that few reporters–most of whom, presumably, have had algebra and finished high school–can calculate a percentage. I could have had a brilliant career if I wasn't spending half of my time at the AP computing percentages for political science majors or law school grads.
Whatever benefit they were supposed to have received from algebra, they didn't receive it.
But we're here to discuss the journalism, not whether Hacker was right or wrong. Some of the discussion revolves around whether algebra is an important reason why students drop out of school. That's an important issue for society and for education professionals. But I'm more interested in the broader question: Is algebra worth knowing?
Ouellette, who covers mathematics, argues strongly for algebra as something we do use in real life, as something worth knowing in itself, and as an important preliminary to careers in physics, engineering, biology, and so forth. She talks about a Japanese education experiment that left 1 in 4 college students unable to calculate an average. As a confessed former math-phobe, Ouellette makes a strong argument for teaching algebra. I'm not always entirely clear on what she means by algebra. Certainly averages are something we use in real life. Quadratic equations? Maybe less so. Anyway, be prepared if you want to take on Ouellette; she's a tough campaigner.
She also links to some interesting pieces by others. One of them, by Mark Chu-Carroll, a computer scientist, at Bad Math, argues that of course we need algebra in real life, even if we are not scientists. His example? Calculating which of two mortgages is the better deal. Here's how that goes:
How do you figure that out? Well, the amortization equation describing the mortgage is:
m is the monthly payment on the mortgage.
p is the amount of money being borrowed on the loan….
I'm not persuaded. I've had more than my share of math classes, and I don't have that equation in my head, I wouldn't easily know where to find it, and I don't have software that would run the calculations for me. I'm guessing there are plenty of scientists and engineers who ask for help when it comes to sorting out their financial investments.
You can find more links in a rather angry post by Blake Stacey who dismisses Hacker as bizarre and completely without merit. One such link went to a piece by Cathy O'Neill who takes a thoughtful look at why algebra is such a stumbling block for students, and how it might be better taught. Over at The Washington Post, Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist, argues that math and science are good predictors of individual income, which is not quite the same thing as saying everyone should know algebra.
Evelyn Lamb, also at Scientific American, finds a great example to explain what it is that people need to know from the algebra they are learning now:
Algebra and geometry, another subject Hacker could do without, help develop logical skills and abstract reasoning so we can understand why we are making less money than before if we get a 20 percent pay cut followed by a 20 percent raise (or a 20 percent raise followed by a 20 percent pay cut—hello, commutative law of multiplication!) or how much merchandise we can purchase if we have $100 and a 25 percent off coupon.
The missing piece here, for me, is that a whole lot of people who have had algebra don't get this, in my experience. Sure, scientists get it, and business analysts get it, and engineers get it, but they've had more math than high-school algebra, and a whole lot more practice.
This debate isn't likely to end soon, and it's spawned what I think is a fascinating discussion on the blogs.
Dip into it, and enjoy.