Algebra really is worth the effort

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on August 15, 2012)

Political scientist and emeritus professor at City University of New York Andrew Hacker stirred controversy last month with an opinion piece questioning the place of algebra in the K-12 curriculum (“Is Algebra Necessary?” New York Times, July 28).

According to Hacker, algebra is perhaps the main culprit behind a high school dropout rate that in many cities exceeds 25 percent. In higher education, freshman math is also why so many two-year and four-year college students fail to complete a degree. Hacker also argued that the math that is taught bears little relationship to the types of computations required in most jobs.

As an alternative, Hacker recommended a math curriculum aimed at developing quantitative literacy to help individuals evaluate public policies, do cost-benefit analyses and understand statistics. His goal is better informed citizens. He also recommends making mathematics accessible by studying it in the context of its history and philosophy and its role in various arts.

The response to Hacker’s opinion has been swift and stern. From The Huffington Post to “Scientific American,” experts have been quick to defend the importance of algebra. Evelyn Lamb, in “Scientific American,” rightly noted that algebra is rooted in understanding relationships, solving problems, and developing logic skills. And she rightly observed that few of us can predict in high school the precise knowledge that will be required of us in our future careers. But we can predict that students able to persevere and solve problems are more likely to be successful than students who throw in the towel at the first sign of difficulty.

Several years ago I served as vice chair of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. Our goal was to develop recommendations for improving U.S. teaching of mathematics, especially in grades K-8 as a preparation for algebra. We concluded that “the delivery system in math education… is broken and must be fixed.”

Math education in the primary and middle grades lacks focus and coherence. We recommended that it be streamlined and that national and state assessments should connect with grade-level benchmarks. With the new national Common Core standards, there is reason to hope that students will be better prepared for mathematical success. We also proposed expanding research on mathematics teaching to improve our understanding of what works.

Unfortunately, teachers and parents tend to perpetuate a fear of mathematics in children without intending to do so. Instead, adults need to instill the idea that in mathematics, as in other subjects, effort counts.

Parents who want to optimize their children’s math abilities should emphasize numerical knowledge in the early years right alongside alphabetical knowledge and reading. One of the best ideas I’ve heard comes from Laura Overdeck, who began doing math problems with her kids each night at bedtime. Her Bedtime Math website (http://bedtimemathproblem.org) offers daily suggestions.

Andrew Hacker, however, has offered the wrong suggestion at the wrong time. Thankfully, there are better solutions to our nation’s math problem.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.

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