Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Is Algebra Necessary?

So on July 28th the New York Times ran an article titled "Is Algebra Necessary?"  by Andrew Hacker and it posed the question of the necessity of Algebra on non-STEM students.  It also stated the dismal statistics on how Algebra or being unprepared for college Algebra cripples a large portion of college students.  But really I think what the author is talking about, though stated as a fairly radical idea, is not wholly off base.  It is just a sign that we, math teachers, are not spending enough time with applications while teaching Algebra/Geometry/Algebra II -- the college prep trio.

The author talked about teaching the consumer price index (CPI) and more ideas, I think ideas like this are absolutely required and need time in our college prep trio.  I already have added loans to Algebra 1, computer programming (through Alice) & 3D drawings to Geometry, and stocks/retirement planning to Algebra 2.  (Note I think I will stick CPI into Alg 2 retirement planning -- just "stealing" another idea).  But these projects come at a cost -- there are topics in each course that receive less time or are put off until Pre-Calculus that many neighboring schools do in the trio. 

Some examples of items I delay would be - no coverage of the quadratic formula in Algebra 1 (solving through factoring and simply squares only), no matrices in Algebra 2 (especially Cramer's rule -- a horrible short cut for a weak math student - just memorize this - no need to think..), limited conics in Algebra 2, limited proofs in Geometry, etc.  The list could go on and on.   But we are only armed with 180 days and must make tough decisions as math educators.  The common core does not set grade level or class level targets for 9-12 (unlike K-8) meaning that we have to make the best system that creates students prepared for their world.  While remembering that in our world problem-solvers are required, singing the quadratic formula isn't.....

I think too many teachers have now become test scared.  I don't cover a lot of subjects yet testing-wise my district is doing fine -- meeting the standards, which really doesn't prove much.....   Except many schools around me do "cover" everything and are not testing as well as my school.  Why?

I think the projects I am developing and refining create students who attack problems and are more persistent than students who get the "coverage."   So on power-tests they can use what they know and work their way through many problems that had limited to no-coverage in the trio.  (These skills are really the common core mathematical practices!)

I think it is this question, "Where are the applications?" that the author is asking about in the article.  Algebra is necessary, period.  But how much, at what point in the trio, how the curriculum is arranged, the speed of coverage and demands of mastery are the questions.  If you want to see what projects I do see the google docs below (realize these are not-every complete and change constantly each year)