Should Algebra be a Graduation Requirement?

Rachel Moseley, Staff Writter

Algebra has become a rite of passage and a requirement for graduation, but an op-ed article that appeared in the New York Times questioned whether it’s all worth it.

The author is Andrew Hacker, who has taught political science at the City University of New York since 1971.

He wrote that making algebra a graduation requirement is holding students back, because it can be a stumbling block for those who excel in other fields and

because the algebra taught in school may not related to the quantitative reasoning people do on the job.

Hacker suggests that instead, schools teach useful formulas and specialized training in the math necessary for a particular job.

He suggests a class he calls Citizen Statistics.

“For this, all you need is agility with arithmetic: long division through percentages and ratios,” Hacker told the Mirada in an email interview.

“I’m going to teach such a course next fall, in the Queens College mathematics department,” he said. “I’m starting to collect the exercises I’ll use, in a workshop format.”

Hacker said that going through the regular sequence of math in high school didn’t really help him with the math he needed to do in life.

“I don’t think they benefited me in any way I can identify,” Hacker said. “Much of my research and writing uses statistics. But they are not the ‘mathematical’ kind which are taught in high school and college courses. Those have no application for the sorts of numbers that intelligent people deal with in their personal and public lives.”

Nevertheless, opinion in the Rio community is certainly divided.

“I think algebra is necessary because students build from it in other classes and in many careers,” sophomore Jordan Ekasala said.

Algebraic skills are used in a large variety of jobs and math knowledge is connected with higher employment rates.

Last January, the unemployment rate for engineering graduates was 7.5 percent while the national average for all jobs was 8.3 percent.

Even though algebra can be useful, many feel it shouldn’t be required.

“Someone shouldn’t be denied graduation from high school just because they don’t know how to solve formulas they’ll never use,” freshman Sami Clark said.

Nearly one out of every four ninth graders in California don’t finish high school, according to California Department of Education statistics. Hacker sees problems with algebra as major academic reason.

The thinking goes that if we expect all students to master algebra, then more students will drop out of school.

About 22,500 students in California did not pass the high school exit exam last year. If the algebra component was removed, the state could decrease this number.

“Well obviously if you remove a part of the test it will be easier to pass,” freshman Sydney Komlenic said. “But the point of a test isn’t to make everyone pass, it’s to see who knows the material.”

“I feel like you have to use basic math in daily life whether you know it or not,” senior Ben Davis said. “Whether it’s managing your finances or doing a job related to math, it’s necessary to know algebra.”

Hacker argues that while students need basic numeric skills, algebra is not helpful in personal finance or even most jobs that require a college degree.

Some of Hacker’s critics say algebra is not the stumbling block.

While it’s true that a low grade in algebra can predict dropping out, so can a low grade in English. Many students have difficulty applying their math skills, but this trouble isn’t specific to math.

Transferring a new skill from the whiteboard to real life can be just as hard for scientific method or literary forms as it is for the quadratic formula, said math teacher George Marenco.

“Algebra 1 is a student’s first opportunity to go from concrete ideas to abstract concepts, hence the first time that the variable ‘x’ is manipulated extensively,” Marenco said.

“When students are able to make the connection from the concrete to the abstract, they are able to transfer that skill to other classes and disciplines,” Marenco said. “The content of Algebra 1 isn’t as important as the thought processes that are developed. ”

Algebra can build useful skill sets, but it “prevents us from discovering and developing young talent,” Hacker wrote in his Times article. “Mathematics is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status.”

His critics say there are real reasons to teach algebra, and also it should be required because it is in other countries and is necessary to compete economically.

Hacker’s article sparked debate and buzz, including over 400 comments and a response written in the Washington Post.

“I’ve had well over a thousand replies, perhaps twice that,” Hacker told the Mirada. “I was particularly fascinated by the people who love mathematics (which is fine) but then want to make everyone take it (which is sadistic). It’s curious how an intellectual affinity can turn so punitive. Perhaps they like exercising power over others.”

This debate is not about sparing high schoolers from a hard class. It’s about seriously considering the benefits of algebra.

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