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Algebra, Not for Everyone

By Deborah Williams

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A primary reason for angst among many American high school students is their difficulty passing mathematics courses.  As Hechinger Report’s HechingerEd Blog writer, Sarah Garland, reports that thousands of students are forced to take remedial math.  She also notes that “half of community-college students take remedial courses, and only 10 percent of those who do graduate within three years…And a fifth of four-year college students enroll in remediation, of whom only about a third graduate in six years.”  Her post, “Math Education in America: Should We Get Rid of Algebra?” displayed on The Huffington Post website highlights the split between experts and educators about what to do about this pervasive problem.

Many are asking if algebra is really necessary.  Andrew Hacker’s New York Times op-ed piece this past summer supports his theory that it isn’t needed:

The Complete College America report suggests that algebra is not the right math for all students.  The report’s authors assert, “Most students are placed in algebra pathways when statistics or quantitative math would be most appropriate to prepare them for their chosen programs of study and careers.”

Others believe that part of the issue is that algebra is being taught too early.  Eighth graders, they argue, are not able to understand the concepts, so the information has to be simplified.  In a Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) school district’s program, “students there who took algebra earlier scored much lower on an end-of-year exam than students who didn’t.”  These findings, issued in a report from the American Enterprise Institute by Jacob Vigdor, suggest that this practice of pushing algebra down to lower grades has the opposite intended effect: “It alienates students who are able to grasp the concepts more easily, leaving fewer to be interested in pursuing math, as evidence by the decline in math majors.”

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