Andrew Hacker is back, now flacking the idea that algebra should not be required of high school graduates.1 I wrote about general algebra-requirement criticisms in 2006. But to Hacker’s argument: he proposes “citizen statistics,” to which I (and many others) respond, how you can teach such a course without algebra? “Effect size” and “meta-analysis” should both be key concepts in such a course, but you don’t get them without understanding what a standard deviation is.
When I read such arguments, I generally keep a few questions in the back of my mind:
- Is this an argument about what other people’s children should be exposed to? Often, arguments that propose limiting access to college or more challenging courses in high school are made by people with advanced degrees whose own children or nephews and nieces took high school math through calculus (or the equivalent for other subjects).
- Is this an argument about the subject as it should and can be taught or the subject as the author experienced it? If you had an awful algebra teacher, you might think that all algebra courses are horribly difficult. The same is true for any subject. The solution to bad teaching of an important subject is better teaching of the same subject, not the elimination of the subject.
- Is this an argument about the (ir)relevance of a topic that could likewise be applied to any academic subject? If this were an argument about geometry as commonly taught in high school (i.e., proof structures), I might be more sympathetic (though I would argue that again, the better path is to fix the subject). The argument that algebra is irrelevant to life is an argument that a significant portion of adults should not be able to analyze policy topics such as tax rates, fiscal and monetary policy, medical treatments, education policy, crime rates, or any public issue where empirical evidence, statistical relationships, and fundamental issues are much more easily grasped from an algebraic (i.e., general) understanding.
I lean strongly in favor of requiring algebra, but I am aware of the difficulty some students have with it. I may be the opposite of algebra-requirement critics in my personal life. I was extraordinarily lucky in having a string of good math teachers, with two exceptions, and that algebra was fairly easy for me with a combination of some earlier experiences in school and a good teacher. And while I am an historian, I continue to use my algebra skills in many ways.
- He is better known as the coauthor of a book critical of the value of college. On to algebra. [↩]