Is Algebra Necessary?

I finally caught up on my Sunday morning NYTimes reading and found this provocateur. Andrew Hacker, Professor Emeritus from Queens College, CUNY asks “Is Algebra Necessary?” He argues that we are spending inordinate resources (student time, financial aid, instructor time) trying to get students to pass algebra, a skill they will never use. Far better to teach them quantitative tools that will enrich their understanding of their role in a democracy, such as how to interpret the Consumer Price Index.

The aim would be to treat mathematics as a liberal art, making it as accessible and welcoming as sculpture or ballet. If we rethink how the discipline is conceived, word will get around and math enrollments are bound to rise. It can only help. Of the 1.7 million bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2010, only 15,396 — less than 1 percent — were in mathematics.

I wish Hacker were a math professor instead of the political scientist. It does seem a little like throwing stones from outside the discipline. Also, we have no assurance that we would increase pass rates if we re-thought the math curriculum yet kept the same core quantitative reasoning skills as a student learning outcome, an ostensible goal of his. Yet, I appreciate the different perspective. Alvin Bisarya let me know that Hacker’s reasoning is in line with efforts underway at the Carnegie Foundation with Statway and Quantway. If Reinvention is reading this stuff, can a set of recommendations be far behind?

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

One thought on “Is Algebra Necessary?

  1. Thanks for posting this. It’s a huge debate right now with many schools outsourcing developmental mathematics or offering it in a flipped classroom or via an emporium model. We may discuss this during the department time at DWFDW. Speaking from outside reinvention, much of this has been discussed and there is most assuredly no agreement across district, let alone with reinvention task forces. Those from task forces, past and present, are welcome to comment here. I’m hoping that there will be a spirited discussion of the matter at the meeting next Tuesday.

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