Friday, March 03, 2006

Yes, Virginia, you need algebra

A couple of weeks ago, the LA Times published an article profiling high school students who repeatedly fail to pass the algebra graduation requirement. When I read the article, it seemed pretty clear to me that many of the students who were having the most trouble never learned elementary school math - if you don't understand fractions, algebra will probably never make sense. Instead of putting these students into remedial math classes where they could learn the basics, they are enrolled in algebra again and again until they either pass or drop out. The obvious conclusion is that the system isn't working for these kids, and there needs to be some kind of change in math education so that they don't fall through the cracks.

In response to the article, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote a very silly column, in which he opined that not only should algebra not be a graduation requirement, but that algebra is not needed in everyday life. He has never had to use algebra.

As you can imagine, the on-line response was highly critical. You can find some of the better commentary at Adventures in Ethics and Science, Evolutionblog, and SciAm blogs (and there were lots of others out there discussing the issue). What most people (at least the Richard Cohens of the world) don't appreciate is that most of us use algebra all the time in real life. As it was pointed out at Striving for Average:
Algebra, in its most basic explanation, is simply using what we know, to learn what we don’t. When you add the items together in your check book, that’s arithmetic, the moment you start trying to balance it, especially if it didn’t balance to begin with, it’s algebra. Algebra is how you determine if you have enough money to buy a candy bar, or afford the payments on your house. It is simply the ability to think. If you profess the inability to think in a classroom environment, there is no reason to believe you can think for yourself in the real world.
So, all that having been said, could you pass 8th grade math?

You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!

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