A recently published survey looks at how often Americans use math in their jobs. And after looking at the data, I think Andrew Hacker (of “Is Algebra Necessary?” fame) should look at it. Although The Atlantic piece seems to be spinning it as “Look how little math we use”, I honestly think it goes against the grain of the argument algebra-skeptics were making last year.
Look at the graph. Nearly 20% of Americans use algebra in their jobs. True, that’s definitely short of a majority. But it’s not some rarified, elite stratum of the population. In a typical math class of around 30 students, 6 of them are going to use algebra regularly in their work. That’s probably a lot higher than the number of students having job tasks related to doing explications of text in English or learning gas laws in chemistry. Also notable is the breakdown by job category. Blue collar jobs aren’t much lower in their algebra usage than in white collar jobs, and blue collar trades actually surpass white collar management in algebra usage.
So what does it mean? Lots of stories seem to be running with “clearly not many people use algebra”. But I’d say trying to make a subject that 1 in 5 people regularly use just an elective sounds like a bad move. If algebra were just an elective, it seems likely that lots of kids who aren’t doing college preparatory work in high school may never take it, not realizing that it could be relevant to a decent number of jobs they’re interested in (especially if algebra becomes depicted as something only scientists need).
Does that mean everyone should learn algebra before high school or everyone should take four years of math, a policy proposal that is commonly criticized? No, but that’s a different discussion than just ripping algebra out of the core curriculum. I think it’s perfectly fine if student waits until high school to take algebra if they have more difficulty with math. And I don’t think students should be required to take 4 years of math in high school, but that’s still an uncommon policy. But for now, I’d just like everyone to acknowledge that someone using algebra on the job is a person in your neighborhood.