Following Up on Algebra and Science Debate

I apologize for the dearth of blog posts.  I plan on explaining myself over the weekend.  But I wanted to point out some new developments on two of the news pieces I’ve blogged about:  pondering the necessity of algebra and wondering if we need a “science debate”.

NPR’s Diane Rehm show recently hosted Andrew Hacker, the author of the “Is Algebra Necessary?” piece, along with a “program supervisor of mathematics” in Montgomery County (I’ve assumed that means he develops math curricula for his school district?),  a Duke economics and public policy professor, and writer/columnist Judy Bolton-Fasman to the show to debate the merits of teaching algebra in high schools.  Hacker rephrased most of his argument.  Unfortunately, Nolan, the math program supervisor, made what I considered one of the weakest defenses.  He merely said the general idea of math builds critical thinking skills without explaining why.  When Nolan said this, Hacker immediately interrupted him and said there is no data proving that math education makes students better thinkers or more active citizens.  This really irked me, because a) I felt that Hacker was incredibly rude for talking over Nolan during his speaking time and b) Hacker himself admits he has no numbers supporting his claim that math is the “number one academic reason” students drop out of school and based it on personal talks with unspecified teachers.  I also think Nolan should point out that Hacker’s “citizen statistics” class would probably fail.  Hint:  Statistics is really confusing without a background in algebra, unless you think statistics is nothing but averages and raw probability values.

Another aside:  There was a discussion on the Diane Rehm Facebook page post about this, and it was interesting to hear some people claim that algebra defenders were being misleading by characterizing algebra as addition, multiplication, division, etc.  You know what I think?  THIS IS BASICALLY ALGEBRA.  Algebra is (mostly) the application of many arithmetic operations in a way to find unknown variables.  So my argument is that if you think algebra I is “too hard” to teach high schoolers, I’m not sure how competent you think they are in mathematics (and I’m not sure they’ll ever be that competent, since algebra I forces you to repeat a lot of arithmetic and would probably improve your skills).

The Washington Post had another follow-up from someone who defended Hacker’s argument about the unnecessary nature of algebra.  Basically, he rips apart all of contemporary high school education.  And I’m totally okay with that.  Although I think high school should at least partially be a liberal education, I can appreciate the idea that people think otherwise.  I’m more annoyed when people single out science and math classes as unnecessary, and yet never seem to realize the arbitrary reasoning for other subjects. (Do we really need everyone to take four years of English?  Can’t we just do a composition class in a year?  Who needs to learn about civics?  You can just read the news if you want to understand government.)  At least here, the author is being honest and just arguing that if none of this works from a cognitive perspective, we should just throw out the whole system.

For the other piece, Science Debate got responses from both the Romney and Obama campaigns!  Go here for the side-by-side comparison and check out their homepage for links to reactions.

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