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If a large group of people fail at something, is failure due to the thing being too difficult to master or a systematic failure of the system to achieve a successful outcome?
That is the question I ponder as I read the article “Is Algebra Necessary?” in the New York Times. The author’s contention seems to be that because so many students have difficulty passing algebra and other advanced mathematics courses, we should not force them to take these classes. However, could the real issue be that our system is the real failure rather than the ability of our students?
Take this gem for example:
It’s true that students in Finland, South Korea and Canada score better on mathematics tests. But it’s their perseverance, not their classroom algebra, that fits them for demanding jobs.
It is hard to even comprehend how ridiculous this statement sounds. He just glosses over the fact that these counties score better in math, without even asking why. Just because those students have more “perseverance” (what evidence is there for that contention I do not know), their superior math skills are unnecessary when it comes to jobs.
Here is another mystifying statement:
It’s not hard to understand why Caltech and M.I.T. want everyone to be proficient in mathematics. But it’s not easy to see why potential poets and philosophers face a lofty mathematics bar. Demanding algebra across the board actually skews a student body, not necessarily for the better.
Okay, not everyone is meant to be a mathematician or scientist or engineer, but I am not sure how this skews the student body into something that is negative. Should we have less STEM majors on campus then so that the poets and philosophers are not so intimidated? Should be eliminate any requirements to take hard or difficult classes so that our liberal arts majors can have the freedom to fart around campus thinking big, lofty thoughts and play pseudo-intellectuals?
Math is not what blocks “attainment for much of our population”. What blocks attainment is a broken education system, lower educational standards, and unqualified teachers that are themselves incapable of understanding algebra. What causes roadblocks for understanding is T-shirts marketed to girls that say “Math is hard” or it is better to be pretty than do homework. What creates wide gaps in achievement in math (and many other subjects) in minority students is lower expectations for success. We seem to be afraid of pushing students to think or encouraging to work hard to learn difficult subjects. A the same time, we stubbornly refuse to reevaluate the way we teach math and to provide better quality resources in the teaching of math.
We do not need any reinventing of what mathematics is with more fluffy liberal arts subjects. What we need is less liberal arts degrees in subjects that are irrelevant to keeping the US competitive or do not contribute to equipping our nation with the skills and knowledge and aptitude to fill the jobs of the 21st century. These jobs are only going to get more technical and require more, not less, math and science and logical thinking skills. From someone that wrote a book titled “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids”, I would have expected something a bit more constructive and attuned to the reality of what is required in the future workforce.
Instead of dumbing down math, which is exactly what the author is proposing, we need to reinforce the standards and provide a better system to ensure success. Our schools are not failing students because they are too hard. They fail because few schools expect anything from their students and shy away from challenging their minds. We can ill afford to expect so little of our youth if we are to meet the enormous challenges faced over the next generation is shifting from an industrial economy to an information based economy. If students in other countries can succeed in mathematics, do we really think our students are less capable? If so, that is truly a sad sentiment and an admission of national epic failure.