A recent article in “Slate” by Edward Frenkel had the interesting subtitle “Of course kids need to learn Algebra”. The initial premise of the piece is the manipulation of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to reduce federal spending in an unfair manner by using faulty mathematics. But Frenkel then introduced a familiar pundit:
“Ironically, in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, social scientist Andrew Hacker suggested eliminating algebra from the school curriculum as an ‘onerous stumbling block,’ and instead teaching students ‘how the Consumer Price Index is computed.’ What seems to be completely lost on Hacker and authors of similar proposals is that the calculation of the CPI, as well as other evidence-based statistics, is in fact a difficult mathematical problem, which requires deep knowledge of all major branches of mathematics including … advanced algebra.”
While my view of Dr. Hacker’s opinion was discussed in great and sometimes painful detail in an August 19 post, it was the closing words of this Frenkel piece that was worthy of serious attention. So serious I have included an extensive amount:
“Whether we like it or not, calculating CPI necessarily involves some abstract, arcane body of math…This turns out to be a hard mathematical problem that has perplexed economists for more than a century and still hasn’t been completely solved. But even to begin talking about this problem, we need a language that would enable us to operate with symbolic quantities representing baskets and prices—and that’s the language of algebra…
“So that’s where we find ourselves today: Politicians are still eager to exploit backdoor mathematical formulas for their political needs, economists are still willing to play along, and no one seems to care about finding a scientifically sound solution to the inflation index problem using adequate mathematics. And the public—well, very few people are paying attention. And if we follow Hacker’s prescriptions and further dumb down our math education, there won’t be anyone left to understand what’s happening behind closed doors.
“Irrespective of one’s political orientation, one thing should be clear: In this brave new world, in which formulas and equations play a much bigger role than ever before, our ignorance of mathematics is being abused by the powers that be, and this will continue until we start taking math seriously for what it is: a powerful weapon that can be used for good and for ill.
Alas, instead of recognizing this new reality, we keep giving forum to paragons of mathematical illiteracy…
“We have to break this vicious circle. As Richard Feynman eloquently said, ‘People who wish to analyze nature without using mathematics must settle for a reduced understanding.’ Now is the time not to reduce math curriculum at schools, but to expand it, taking advantage of new tools in education: computers, iPads, the wider dissemination of knowledge through the Internet. Kids become computer literate much earlier these days, and they can now learn mathematical concepts faster and more efficiently than any previous generation. But they have to be pointed in the right direction by teachers who inspire them to think big. This can only be achieved if math is not treated as a chore and teachers are not forced to spend countless hours in preparation for standardized tests. Math professionals also have a role to play: Schools should invite them to help teachers unlock the infinite possibilities of mathematics to students, to show how a mathematical formula can be useful in the real world and also be elegant and beautiful, like a painting, a poem, or a piece of music.”
The closing paragraph deserves to be allowed to stand alone:
“Working together, we should implement the 21st century version of the Second Amendment: Everyone shall have the right to bear “mathematical arms”—to possess mathematical knowledge and tools needed to protect us from arbitrary decisions by the powerful few in the increasingly math-driven world. So that the next time someone wants to alter a formula that affects us all, we won’t be afraid to ask: ‘Wait a minute, what does this formula mean and why are you changing it?’”
A beautifully stated argument
For many people Algebra 1 is a difficult subject to master. Decades of report cards and standardized results attest to the accuracy of that statement. But the fact that something is challenging does not make it less important or to be ignored. Instead of taking the approach of Dr. Hacker and others and remove Algebra 1 as a required course or water the curriculum down to elevate grades and passing rates, better methods for delivering the information need to be created.
If we as a culture accept the belief that it is critical for all Americans to have a mastery of Algebra 1, the path to that goal is not as difficult. For those students who are currently succeeding in the class leave everything unchanged. But for the 50% or so who are struggling, schools should present the class in a cohesive two-year package which will meet the needs of those requiring slower pacing, more classwork and longer review. Yes this is a commitment of time that will be taken from other subjects. However, if the accepted premise is that real comprehension of Algebra 1 is a requirement for being a productive citizen, then it would be well spent.