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NYT Asks, "Is Algebra Necessary?"

The dumbing down of America continues? Or a good argument?

[NYT] - A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.

My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus. State regents and legislators — and much of the public — take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.

There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)

This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

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As a high schooler who barely passed 8th grade Algebra,

I'm still waiting for the day that I will actually use x² + y + 8 [(x + 2y² = a-z] + 2x³ + (-2z = 2.4) + 10y - 5Z³ = k = 9 in real life.


P.S. I normally have pretty good grades; it's just algebra I'm terrible at.

“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till." -J.R.R. Tolkien


You won't use that in real life, 'cause it's not a real equation.

I don't blame anyone who didn't have good enough teachers to explain the how and the why of algebra. But throwing it out isn't the solution.

You may never use 2x² - 13x - 24 = (2x + 3)(x - 8) in real life, but understanding the relationship between a dependent variable and its independent variables will keep you from being fooled by pretty graphs the media throws at you. Knowing how exponential decay works will help you to recognize that Al Gore's "hockey stick curve" is something he's just pulling out of thin air. Even something as potentially confusing as integration can help you to understand why the debt crisis isn't going to go away.

I'm pretty sure you don't need to be good at math...

to realize that if the media or Al Gore is showing you a graph, it's probably bullshit. :)

I don't play, I commission the league.

Going by the author's logic...

we should get rid of history classes because kids think it's boring and many do poorly in the subject.

Let's get rid of English and Grammar classes too, because whatever kids are speaking these days, it certainly isn't English anyway.

Physics is pretty hard too. Scrap that.

Philosophy is just big words and long, confusing, run-on sentences. Scrap it.

Lunch time? Well, some kids struggle with weight. Scrap lunch time. Ooh! Ooh! Phys Ed, too.

The only class we need is America Is Great 101, where we learn that our elected leaders have our best interests at heart and that going to college is worth the money.

Because of course we can't just abolish public education and let parents and children decide for themselves what they want to learn and where they can excel. That's barbarism. Think of the children!

Simple Facts and Plain Arguments
A common sense take on politics and current events.


Looks like..

You figured out the "progressive" game. NYT promoted S.Security too, boasting the numbers would "...never be used to identify American Citizens" Ohh NYT, what wonderful contributions you give to the American people. . .

We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.
-George Orwell

I LOVE math, but most adv math is useless for 99% of jobs

The time I spent on advanced math like calculus, trig, linear algebra, etc. would have been much better spent on cooking, agriculture, real history, political science, home economics, public speaking, debating, etc.

Heck, just PE would have been better. You can just apply these things to life much better.

However, everyone needs exposure to basic to medium algebra because it is used in nearly every profession. Geometry, physics, finance, agriculture, architecture, programming, etc. all use various algebraic formulas.

All college folk should have one advanced math theory class that exposes them to what calculus, trig, linear algebra, etc. is. But don't make them take several classes devoted to solving non-applicable math progrems. On the other hand, engineers, programmers, etc. should have access to adv math classes.

But for jr high and high school:
1) A solid algebraic education, but not crazy advanced.
2) Make them apply algebra to formulas used in professions. We already do this well for geometry and science...just expand it to finance, economics, agriculture, programming, etc. Call it Professional Algebra.

I'm considering becoming a math teacher and there is no way I'd waste time teaching Calculus and Adv Algebra.

Yes, algebra is necessary

I love how this "writer and social scientist" thinks he has an inside track on science and mathematics education. Idiot.

Yes, students need algebra. If they are ever going to have a job that requires them to make a presentation involving numbers of any kind, they need algebra.

So you say I'm biased because I'm a physicist. I say that's bull. Algebra is more than polynomials and factoring. It's the foundation of logical analysis. The United States is already far behind other developed nations in math and science, and you want to remove one of the most necessary aspects of mathematics? Ridiculous.

I suppose that if they're worried about students failing it, they can divide students into two groups: "future citizens" and "future janitors". Maybe a nice solid class distinction will help, hmm?

Gotta love...

the collectivist smears against younger generations in here ("they're too lazy, too egotistical, too many video games, etc").

The joy for learning REALLY is lost as a result of not only the increasingly-ridiculous college process (where human beings are reduced to numbers, legacy, and an activity list and aren't allowed to ever make a mistake) but also the lack of any choice. Wouldn't human nature dictate that if students had more choice in what they wanted to learn, they'd do better and like it more because they chose their path instead of being forced into one? Not to mention, it would also give students a head start on decision-making skills.

I don't play, I commission the league.

After years of instructional experience...

I've stopped looking for the best way to increase the odds of students learning. There isn't a best technique, there isn't a best environment.

No matter how good a teacher is, the student must want to learn. If someone wants to learn, you don't even need a teacher. In fact, if someone wants to learn, nothing can stop them from learning...not even the increasing-ridiculous college process.

So I focus on getting the student to want to learn. And the best way to do that is to put the responsibility on the students: "Why do you want to learn this?" Once they answer, and they will, get the hell out their heads after that.

Get them to value their internal locus of control over external forces and you unleashed their natural desire to learn ravenously, to be a freedom-loving individual. That is what true teachers do.

Terminally Chill asks,

"Is the New York Times necessary?"

I agree that privatization is the solution

There have certainly been throughout History extremely valuable people that never mastered Algebra, and we should not be denying access to college-level education to Algegra dropouts.

That said, there is no way in heck I'm letting my daughter go through high school without Algebra, even if it means me staying home to tutor her. As a nation we are starved for STEM graduates, regardless of that bogus stat the author provides. (Why only list the unemployment rate for those with no experience, and why in a recession year? Why not mention that STEM graduates make way more money than the average non-STEM graduate? Have we repealed the law of supply and demand?)

The typical New York Times writer sees the World through the prism of "What Should WE do?", as if in a modern globalized civilization we could discover a one-size-fits-all set of requirements to optimally benefit the collective.


I appreciate this topic of conversation and would like to ask u a question. You are adamant that your daughter learn algebra even if u stay home to teach her yourself. She is fortunate to have a parent able and willing to do that for her. May I please ask if you have certain dreams or hopes regarding the way your daughter spends the rest of her life after high school, what they are?

I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war. Ps 120:7
Better to be divided by truth than united in error.
The local church(not a building -a people) is the missing link. The time to build is now.

She should do whatever inspires her

My goal is to ensure she has every opportunity to be as valuable and enlightened as possible before making her life choices.

If she were to dislike algebra and not be very good at it...

...would she be less valuable in your mind?

I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war. Ps 120:7
Better to be divided by truth than united in error.
The local church(not a building -a people) is the missing link. The time to build is now.

Re dumbing down U.S. math curriculum, if you read the comments

below the article (I recommend setting the order for "reader picks"), there are many compelling reasons to keep the standard math topics in high school curriculum, and I won't reiterate them here.

That's not to say math is currently taught very well. IT ISN'T. And the problem begins at the elementary school level. That's not to say that math curriculum has a goal to develop an appreciation of the subject. IT DOESN'T.

No offense, but (to quote one of the comments), algebra isn't rocket science. The solution isn't to eliminate the subjects but to make those responsible accountable: today's so-called teacher training programs. PROPERLY PREPARE TEACHERS, and students would do JUST FINE. P.S. American students don't only do poorly in math. See Page 34: APPENDIX C http://www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/Papers/PEPG10-19_Hanushe... It's a broken and IRRESPONSIBLE SYSTEM.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.
~ John Muir

I'm all for the free market

I'm all for the free market approach, but if algebra gets left out, I predict a negative free market effect. Any approach that advocates or encourages LESS knowledge can only end up badly. But feel free to try. I'm fairly confident that the free market will see to it that algebra will be preserved in some form or another.

Anyways, anyone who has LEARNED decent critical thinking skills can see that all the numbers in the article were cherry picked to support his argument. Only the gullible will think that just because numbers and statistics were used, that somehow the arguments used are somehow stronger and more relevant.

Ever heard of this joke:

"Statistics are like whores, play with them long enough and they'll do anything for you."

Anyone that understands statistics KNOW that depending on how you run the numbers, it can easily be skewed in such a way where it supports your case. To see through the lies of statistics, you would need to have a firm grasp on the relationship between cause and effect (which would require philosophy, mathematics or a course in logic) . In this article, the statistics are skewed in a manner to suggest that the effect of students FAILING was because of the inclusion of algebra or mathematics (which would be the CAUSE). If this were really true, ALL countries would do equally bad. Currently, the US ranking in math is 24th. The author has conveniently marginalized this point in order to strengthen his case. This extra piece of knowledge SHOWS (or atleast highly suggests) that students failing is not because of the inclusion of algebra.

And even if you managed to prove it, you would need to prove that reducing the ability of students to fail means that students are smarter. Passing subjects more easily doesn't necessarily mean you are smarter.

Keep Suzie Q. AWAY from the bridge

There are some kids, some girls in particular, who get clubbed with math in school to the point of depression. I'm talking about girls who can't wrap their mind around basic math very well, not to mention the kids who get sent to "special ed."

Now you will never change a child's basic make-up or wiring no matter how many Fs a child is given or how many times a child gets held back a grade.

Is the torture of algebra really necessary for these children or might someone thoughtful and caring(maybe a mother) take time to help that child find things he or she IS good at and help them to grow in skills and knowledge in those areas? Does it do the child or society good or harm to try and force children to be what they were never meant to be? Does Suzie need to be force fed algebra when she is just gaining confidence in reading? Do we really need Suzie Q. to become an engineer and maybe play a part in designing bridges?

Maybe Suzie Q. loves food and can learn basic math while becoming a great cook. There are probably women who aced algebra who can't or who refuse to put a meal on the table while Susie's family raves about her kitchen prowess to the edifying of Suzie who is one happy lady knowing she has worth and is GOOD at what she was does. Why Suzie may have even learned to sew for her children or quilt which allows her to put geometry into real life practice. Geometry is much more interesting than algebra to girls it seems anyway. Imagine if Geometry and home economics could meet. That is possible but almost impossible inside "public" school.

I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war. Ps 120:7
Better to be divided by truth than united in error.
The local church(not a building -a people) is the missing link. The time to build is now.

Too much self-defense in the article; the author knows its wrong

Too much self-defense in the article; the author knows he's wrong abd must be testing the sense of outrage of his readers.

On the other hand, who needs algebra or any other exercise of rational problem-solving in the U.S.A. (Union of Stupid A******s)?

"Cowards & idiots can come along for the ride but they gotta sit in the back seat!"

Let the Market Decide

Instead of wondering about how the government should mandate curriculum, how about we just privatize education and let the market sort it out? Is algebra necessary? For many, yes. For everyone? Probably not. Let's take government force out of the equation entirely and let parents and schools decide. Ultimately, the consequences of eliminating algebra, whether positive or negative, will become evident in the reputation and enrollment of the schools who do so.

Please do not give up on Math

Math can be really interesting:

As a free person all you need

As a free person all you need to be taught is how to read and then you can learn anything that interests you on your own. A parent or guardian could help guide you into learning things that would make your life easier such as writing, grammar, math, etc. To force a child to do things he does not want to do just conditions him to be a pawn of the state

Its about more than moving numbers; it promotes problem-solving

Oh come on! Its about more than moving numbers; it promotes problem-solving skills. Learning algebra exercises parts of the brain that otherwise would not be used.

Whether algebra itself is of any further use after school is not important. Only that rational problem-solving is forever a part of the person's mental tool box.

"Cowards & idiots can come along for the ride but they gotta sit in the back seat!"

It Doesn't Hurt

It certainly doesn't hurt to learn algebra. Not only is it an excercise in the practice of learning, but it is applicable to much analyzation, and is an integral thought process associated with nearly all problem solving.

But hey, maybe today's youth is just too darn busy with video games, vanity, and just plain self indulgence to give the focus and effort to learn the useless fundamentals of agebra.

What most people really need

is simple street smart fast math capability at high school level.Generations have been subjected to this stupidity of high levels shock therapy exams algebra drills.
It takes tons of the kids creativity away, drains brainpower, diverts from other important matters, and is mostly there to justify the existence of an antiquated ED SYSTEM which has lost its true purpose.

Algebra Helps Develop

Algebra helps develop the ability to reason, calculate, and figure things out through various logical means. Aside from it's direct applications, Algebra simply helps improve the mind.

Back when I went to school (20 some years ago), I recall completing basic Algebra in the 7th grade...yes the algebra they now often teach in college. Back then I did calculus in my senior year at the school I attended. It really does seem like America is being dumbed down.

I mean this whole terrorist thing, in what equation are the ones doing the most killing and bombings the good guys, and the ones being bombed and killed are the bad guys? Guess you have to have a dumbed down society to sell lies such as those. Oh, and that glowing brainwashing box in everyone's living room helps perpetuate such a massive deception.

Gatekeeper classes

I swear some of these classes are there to make sure only linear, concrete sequencial, input-output, dogmatically accept and regurgitate, type thinkers end up being the ones with the most credentials.

Those more geared toward critical thinking are at a disadvantage. How convenient.

This Is The Reason

This is the reason that so many kids with college degrees are completely unemployable. Algebra is a stepping stone on the path to valuable degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). If we make algebra mandatory, we set kids up for success, and if we don't they are only good for unskilled labor.

I agree with the author.

When taking algebra at University I was told "you are supposed to know this before you get here". That is great for people who have been out of high school for a year or two, but it had been well over 30 years for me. Back then colleges only required basic math to graduate. At about a $1000 bucks for tuition and books today, you would expect the teachers to at least attempt teaching. They don't. When I went to the Student Learning Assistant Center for help, I had three graduate students help me on one problem. They came up with five widely divergent answers, only one of the answers was considered likely by two of the tutors.

Algebra is the only subject which prevented me from graduating. The VP of Academics told me to go to Austin Community College if I wanted qualified teachers for Math and Science. Needless to say she ( the VP ) was replaced soon after. People always get in trouble for speaking the truth.

Before you say I could not do math because of lack of intelligence, I was in the Honors Program for 4 years and quit college with a 3.26 GPA while working full-time. My son is a math fanatic, and my father was an engineer. Perhaps it skips a generation. I was one of the best math students in school until high school. When I went to high school in the 1970's they were pushing social sciences, not hard sciences. I don't remember ever taking algebra in high school ( but then due to an auto accident when I was 20 which gave memory loss, I barely remember high school at all ).

Yes, I do easily understand the difference in pricing, and packaging, at grocery stores.

you probably just missed one brick in the foundation.

I struggled with it and tore my hair out in a community college vocational math class, until one night a friend sat with me and found the brick I missed... He realized I had missed something along the way. Once the foundation was corrected with that brick in place - it was an epiphany and it all made sense from there on out. Turned my grades in that class from failing to a B.

The foundation pieces that I missed were most likely taught in middle-school, IMO, the hardest time/environment for any kid to learn. At least it was that way for me.

SteveMT's picture

They have already brought us Newspeak, so ending #s is next.

Texting is Newspeak.

"Newspeak is a fictional language in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, it refers to the deliberately impoverished language promoted by the state. Orwell explained the basic principles of the language in an essay included as an appendix to the novel.[1] Newspeak is closely based on English but has a greatly reduced and simplified vocabulary and grammar. The totalitarian aim of the Party is to prevent any alternative thinking — "thoughtcrime", or "crimethink" in the newest edition of Newspeak — by destroying any vocabulary that expresses such concepts as freedom, free enquiry, individualism, resistance to the authority of the state and so on. One character, Syme, says admiringly of the diminishing scope of the new language: "It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words."