A New York professor has sparked a debate among educators over whether or not algebra is too hard and should be dropped from the curriculum.
Political scientist Andrew Hacker of Queens College in New York insists the difficulty of learning algebra is responsible for a higher dropout rate when students find they can’t grasp the discipline. The course should be excluded, Hacker says, because the math is just too hard for students today.
“One out of 5 young Americans does not graduate from high school. This is one of the worst records in the developed world. Why? The chief academic reason is they failed ninth-grade algebra,” Hacker says in his new book The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions.
The Queens College professor emeritus says only about five percent of jobs have any use for algebra and other advanced maths, so teaching higher math is both a waste of time and causes actual damage to graduation rates.
“At the very time we should be honing and sharpening quantitative reasoning skills we punch students into algebra, geometry, calculus. The Math People take over and ignore much simpler needs. Arithmetic is super essential — we quantify everything,” Hacker told The New York Times.
Hacker went on to note that 57 percent of CUNY students failed basic algebra, “And this is getting worse with the Common Core,” he added.
Proponents of continuing to teach algebra, though, discount Hacker’s claims. Bill McCallum, a professor at the University of Arizona who helped create the math standards for Common Core, said that while it may be true few will go on to use algebra on the job, the skill should be taught anyway because “we don’t know which kids” will need the skill and which won’t.
Another top educator, Philip Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics and of public affairs at the University of Texas, said teaching algebra also helps train students in other ways, even if they don’t use the math later on in their careers.
“Every study I’ve ever seen of workers in whole bunches of fields shows that you have to understand formulas, you have to understand relationships,” Treisman said. “Algebra is the tool for consolidating your knowledge of arithmetic.”
But other educators essentially agree with Hacker.
Karon Klipple, a project director for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, also noted too many students are dropping out of college because algebra is too hard. Klipple claimed that between 60 and 80 percent of students who drop out do so because the math requirements are too hard.
“This is where their hopes and aspirations go to die,” Klipple told the Associated Press. “They’re in college to try to make a better life for themselves, and they’re stopped by mathematics.”
The problem seems widespread. Last year The Washington Post reported that three out of four high schoolers in Maryland failed Algebra 1 and fn 2014 it was reported that 100,000 students in Arizona failed the state’s mandated math testing.
Professor Hacker also went on to say the ACT and SAT testing kids go through is also useless for job skills and contributes to lower graduation statistics.
“On the whole, I’d be happy if the ACT and SAT quietly disappeared,” he told the Times. “Speed may be necessary for firefighters and airline pilots. But not in the intellectual enterprise. And yet, on many fronts, test scores in math provide an edge for awards and admissions.”
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at email@example.com