If Andrew Hacker has his way, people who can't pass a simple math course will never have to apologize again. He proposes, in the New York Times, no less, to eliminate algebra from high school [Is Algebra Necessary?]. (Andrew Hacker is a former professor of political science.)
The blogosphere has erupted with posts defending the teaching of math in high school. That's exciting and encouraging. I won't repeat what they say; instead I want to concentrate on two specific items in Hacker's opinion piece.
He complains about the failure rate in high school ...
To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.Why should America be "ashamed" of a 75% success rate in finishing high school? What's the ideal number? Surely it isn't 100% because that would mean making high school so easy that everyone can graduate. What's the point of that? Is high school just a glorified day care center for teenagers?
We can't have an intelligent discussion about the goals of high school education until we agree on just how high the bar should be set. Is it at ground level or is it higher? Personally, I think a 75% success rate is about right.
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.I bet you can see where this is headed, right? It's the two cultures issue rearing its ugly head [Cocktail Parties and the Two Cultures] [Postmodernism and the Two Cultures]. Andrew Hacker is worried about wasted brainpower if we flunk all those students who can't understand introductory math and science. In contrast, I bet he would be happy to flunk all those math and science geeks who can't pass a course in history, French, and social studies.
California’s two university systems, for instance, consider applications only from students who have taken three years of mathematics and in that way exclude many applicants who might excel in fields like art or history.I'm sorry but I don't lose any sleep over this. If you can't master simple high school subjects like algebra then you shouldn't be in university.1 (I doubt very much that there are students who "excel" in the humanities subjects but couldn't get through the easiest math courses. That's probably a myth.)
If that means that extraordinary numbers of students are flunking out of high school then we'd better work on teaching math and science better. And we'd better work on getting society to understand why math (and science) is important. Most of all, we should show young students that everyone is capable of learning math just as eveyone is capable of learning all other subjects. We can't do that as long as there are former political science professors making excuses for not "getting" math.
[Photo Credit: The Algebra Dispute]
1. I feel the same way about basic, introductory, high school science. You have no business going to university if you can't take a first year science course.