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Do Students Need Less Algebra?

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Is there an algebra overkill? That’s the question John W. Myres, a retired California school teacher and superintendent, asks in a recent opinion piece in Education Week. He answers in the affirmative. Myres notes that most school districts require all students to take one to two years of algebra to graduate and suggests that  this may be too much of a good thing. Sure, algebra is necessary for students who want to study higher mathematics or go on to careers that require advanced math skills. But, he adds, that’s not must for most of us.

Most folks use math every day to buy things, balance checkbooks, create budgets, decipher recipes, or even to enjoy baseball stats. But none of the math skills we need to do those and other chores require knowing algebra. While it’s “reasonable [for students] to have some experience with it before leaving school . . . the current craze to increase and require algebra without any other considerations” seems unnecessary to Myres. Myres is no mathphobe. He writes that he enjoyed algebra and took it not only in high school but at college. Nevertheless, he says, he can’t recall every putting it to use since then. He concludes: “I’ve never had to solve for ‘two unknowns,’ a task that was, in those long-ago days, a particular delight of mine.”

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6 Responses to “Do Students Need Less Algebra?”

  1. Absolutely incredible example of the sort of 20th century thinking that has positioned our nation so far behind the rest of the advanced world. Does Mr. Myres not realize that the benefits of math i.e. algebra, geometry, and, maybe calculus provide discipline of thinking and reasoning necessary to function in the only sort of jobs that are now or will be available to us. The chinese don’t need our uneducated workforce for their manufacturing jobs, and there are precious few jobs left here that don’t or won’t require math, science, and, yes, excellent communication skills.

    Solve these two unknowns Mr. Myres!

    How do we teach quantitatve thinking without math?
    How do we employ our unprepared and uneducated to compete in this world?

    This sort of weak garbage thinking should not be published as lead articles anywhere, particularly here. Must have been a brain break or low news day.

    With teachers and superintendents like Myres, is there any wonder whatever that the finest public education system in the nation is now approaching the bottom?

  2. I’ve often pondered this question. I teach math at a small private school and have a background in engineering. We teach algebra in high school (even though most people will never use it) so we don’t forget (as civilization) how to do Algebra. Just teaching it at the college level won’t do it. In MHO.

  3. There are always 3 sides to a discussion. I tend to be on the middle side on this one. I teach Computer Aided Drafting and Photography. Believe it or not I teach more algebra in photography than I do in CAD. We all use different levels of math on any given day. We all have different job requirements.

    I have students that are great at solving for 2 unknowns, yet can’t read a ruler in order to center a 5×7 photo in an 8×10 frame. They don’t have the decimal equivalents of 1/8th increments memorized and they can’t tell me off the top of their heads what half of 3/32 is (numerator stays the same, denominator doubles) oh, wait; they can’t double numbers in their head. This stuff is not the same as solving the odd or even calculus problems at the end of the chapter. Solving math problems is one thing. Being a creative problem solver is the problem we face.

    I don’t know what the answer is but we do need to teach higher level math specific to the individual student career path so they may become productive members of a growing world economy.

  4. I remember taking Algebra in High School. I learned how to solve algebraic expressions like a pro. It wasnt until several years later as a Senior Computer Consultant that I realized my ability to diagnose problems using inverse operational thinking faster than others was due to what I learned in algebra. Algebra is also the framework for all higher mathematics and logistic thinking.

    All I can think is that the comments made by John W. Myres were taken out of context or simply an ill-thought rant.

  5. As someone who taught Algebra II in high school, I see both sides. I had many students who would never use the material I was teaching and I believe that teaching them this subject was of no benefit to those students.

    Now, I was in the computer industry for 20 years before becoming a teacher and math was one of my favorite subjects. I had the logic ability, so it was very easy for me. Those students who did not do well in my class, I was able to see that they really struggled with logic. Some students do not have the ability with the higher algebra concepts and would have been better off without the class.

    I know that I hardly ever used much of what I learned in algebra, trig. and calc. Maybe, we can just cover some of the basics in algebra (1 / 2 step equations, factoring, exponents, and radicals) and just skip some of the other material for those students who are not geared for that material.

  6. I have an M.S. in math and a Ph.D. in computer science, so I can rightly be judged as someone who loves math. But I think that Mr. Myers has a point: teaching context-less algebra to students who don’t want to learn it is a waste of time. I think that, as a society, we would be much better off if we required some probability and statistics of all students. Many more people need to be able to compute the expected value of a lottery ticket or the value of insurance than need to solve quadratic equations.

    That said, I don’t think that algebra 1 is too much to require of all high school graduates. A high-school diploma should (but too frequently now does not) guarantee a certain minimal level of literacy and numeracy.

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