In his op-ed piece “Is Algebra Necessary?” Andrew Hacker struggles to justify the teaching of traditional advanced mathematics in our public schools. I’ll admit that the statistics he provides are jarring: community colleges across the country report that fewer than 25% of new students passed their required algebra classes; at The City University of New York, 57% of students fail the mandatory algebra course. High school numbers are more shocking with millions of students from several states falling well below the level of “proficient” in mathematics.
Clearly we have a problem and it’s one that might be avoided by simply eliminating algebra and trigonometry from the curriculum, but does that really solve anything? Hacker argues that advanced math is irrelevant to most career paths. While that may be true, taking algebra out of the equation doesn’t make the fact that millions of children are frustrated and intimidated by math any less of an issue.
I think we owe something to these students. Hacker points out that less than one percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded each year are in mathematics. While he uses this as a way to support his claim that advanced math has become unnecessary, I see this as an argument to the contrary: now, more than ever, we need to encourage students to appreciate math and help them excel in it.
College is obviously too late to start. High school is not soon enough. This is one point that I think Hacker and I are in agreement on. As early as kindergarten children should be exposed to math and as they grow older and hone their analytical skills, math should evolve with them. Many kids can’t succeed in advanced math because their early foundation in math fundamentals is so weak. It isn’t any surprise that by the time they have to take college placement exams the results are what we see today. The real solution is to start early.
To do this we need passionate educators. We need teachers that make math fun and treat it like a puzzle. Unfortunately, many elementary school teachers are also less than enthusiastic about math. They may not be confident in their own skills and whether intentionally or not, it’s passed on to the students. It only makes sense that math be taught by a math specialist at all levels, not just in secondary education.
In 2010 Hacker writes that 15,396 bachelor’s degrees in mathematics were awarded. Let’s see if we can get some passionate teachers from that group.