Maybe the New York Times Should Require Algebra

One of the New York Times’ political bloggers has posted about a new study looking at how globalization, innovation, and social welfare are related. In particular, the study claims to find that global economic growth would slow down if the United States were to adopt a Scandinavian-style welfare state due to it’s role as the leading technological innovator. I don’t have much of an economics background, so I don’t feel qualified to say much directly about the paper. The NYT blog post points out that other economists disagree with this analysis. What struck me most, though, was that Thomas Edsall, the journalist who blogged about the article, said he couldn’t comment  on the article. I can understand that, as he also lacks an economics backgrounds. But I’m a bit peeved at his explanation for this, since his reponse is basically “ain’t nobody got time for that”. He says

 Here is Acemoglu, Robinson and Verdier’s first assumption:

and here is their subsequent thought:

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We DO Use Math… Kinda

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.

In Which the New York Times Astonishes Me

I’m a bit late, but I did want to respond to a New York Times editorial that seemed to produce the most jaw-dropping responses in recent memory.  Fortunately, a Washington Post blogger has already produced a wonderful response that summarizes most of what I want to say.  But there is a bit I want to add.

  • Hacker’s selection of “other schools” to prove math is too important in college admissions struck me as ironic.  Rice, WashU, and Vanderbilt are all top  20 schools.  They also all have fairly big engineering programs, so that would skew the math score of the “average admitted student” higher.  If Hacker truly wanted to show readers that math is over-emphasized in admissions, he should have considered looking at SAT scores from state schools, which are obligated to take on more students as public institutions (but again, make sure to not take schools which are incredibly competitive, so rule out ones like UC Berkeley, UT-Austin, or Michigan), or scores for liberal arts colleges, which tend to place less emphasis on SAT scores.
  • The poor logic here can be used on any subject taken for multiple years in high school.  By his logic, why bother with more than one year of English? It’s just reading different books and doing increasingly more rigorous analysis.  One could argue you don’t really need to understand the difference between a metaphor and a simile unless you’re going into English, linguistics, or some other language-focused fields.  You could just do a single year covering important literature and another year on grammar and composition.

This op-ed seems to follow what I consider a worrying trend in science education.     Many people seem to think science education needs to be more “practical”.   I’ve heard of middle and high schools that are magnets in broad topics like “sustainability” and “health”.  While things like art and science magnet programs make sense to me, because it basically means a school has additional resources like extra lab equipment or more instructors for specialized classes, I don’t get how you teach something as interdisciplinary as health to a high school student still taking basic biology, chemistry, and social studies without taking away from the more general concepts of these fields.

I remember an LA Times piece several years ago about a sustainability magnet program that had kids growing a garden in biology and somehow tying that into every class.  As Wilingham points out, what happens to students when they need to do something besides botany in biology?  But I also wonder if this early, practical education has another downside.  If a student doesn’t like the application the class focuses on, will they still consider liking the subject?  At my undergrad school, we didn’t have a singular biology department; we had an ecology department and a molecular biology department.  I had several friends in both, and I could certainly see my molecular biology friend interested in genetic engineering being completely bored by growing and observing plants as well as my ecologist friend hating a medically-oriented biology class.  Our current, “grab-bag” science education system might not be the best, but I feel that we’re more likely to get students interested and educated in science by introducing them to basic concepts and applying them to everyday life instead of having their first taste be a specialization.