All Calculators and No Brains: The Pros and Cons to High School Algebra

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In his recent editorial for the New York Times, Andrew Hacker, professor of political science at Queens College in New York, asks “Is Algebra Necessary?” Hacker says that the millions of high school students and college freshmen taking mandatory mathematics aren’t actually learning much aside from tapping those calculators. He argues that instead, algebra is hindering students who are talented in other fields.
"First of all, when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), only about 5 percent of all Americans, six million out of 150 million employed Americans, use STEM skills in our jobs," Hacker says. 

After sitting in on classes and talking to educators across the country, Hacker says that math class is an unnecessary hoop to jump through on the way to graduation. "What the teachers tell me is that the largest single academic reason why students drop out of high school is algebra," the professor says. "Twenty-five percent of our ninth graders do not make it to graduation. That's a scandal." 

"Now what we do need [is] quantitative skills — how to use statistics, how to read statistics," Hacker says. He would like to see students being handed a copy of the recently passed Affordable Care Act instead of a sheet full of quadratic equations. Instead of Algebra II, students would enroll in "Citizen's Statistics" (Hacker admits that it's a working title).  

"This is not dumbing down, this is not how to balance your checkbook," he says. "Let's give students a couple hundred pages of print with all sorts of ideas and tables from all sides on what's going to happen with the new health care act, and let them go through it, research it, find out what are the facts, what are the fictions, what do we know, what are we guessing about. That, contrary to dumbing down, will be more difficult [and] more rigorous than geometry."  

Typically, the benefits of studying algebra are said to be improved abstract reasoning, logic, and problem solving, but Hacker categorizes those as "myths." 

"The people who have a vested interest in keeping algebra going, those who accept the myths and mystiques, will say virtually anything to defend it," Hacker says. "Certainly, I want people to have more quantitative skills, [but] it doesn't require any algebra — in fact, no math above long division and ratios."