Jul 30, 2014
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Algebra: Stop Requiring It for Graduation

Columnist Jerry Heverly shares his opinion on why algebra should be made optional rather than required for high school graduation.

(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at The views expressed here are his own.)

I was scrambling up a mountain in Northeastern Albania when I started working, in my head, on this column. (All summer I tried to drop a mention of my summer travels in the Balkans. I finally found a way)

When I got back to civilization in Tirana, I discovered that a writer, Andrew
Hacker, had written essentially the same column for the Sunday New York Times. (The Times charges for subscriptions so I can’t give you a link but any Google search will quickly turn up summaries of Hacker’s ideas.)

What I want to argue, as Hacker did, is that it is a big mistake to require all
kids to take algebra.

I am not advocating that algebra be dropped from high school. For any
student who considers going to college, I’d strongly recommend it. What’s happening now is that non-college-bound kids are flunking algebra at an astonishing rate.

I’m 6521.6 miles from home (I looked it up) so I can’t look up the statistics
but something like 50 percent of all freshmen at San Leandro High School get a D or F in algebra every year.

And I’d bet that nearly 100 percent of all students who drop out of SLHS had a D or F in algebra.

Algebra is a major precipitating cause of high school dropouts. The usual answer I get at this point is that, if students are failing a subject we should a) change the way we teach the subject or b) change the teachers.

I’d certainly be in favor of a). Here’s a video that shows how I think the
subject should be taught: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWUFjb8w9Ps.

I taught algebra for four summer school sessions. I’ve also observed math
teachers. I think I understand how the present methods evolved (and why changing teachers would not produce the desired results).

What do you do when kids refuse to engage in your subject? You simplify it.
In the case of math, you develop algorithms, little step-by-step directions that any willing person can remember. This means, however, that when you test these same students, you must structure the questions to resemble the example you gave them for practice.

Algebra then becomes a game of recognizing which algorithm to apply to which problem. It does not involve thinking.

I should also point out, as someone who detests state-mandated standards,
that a big reason for algorithms is because teachers are required to “cover” a host of topics in an algebra class, guaranteeing that even imaginative teachers cannot take the time to include any real thinking in the course.

I’ve heard other reasons for requiring all students to pass algebra. It will be needed in trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, and physics. But most kids don’t take these subjects.

Succeeding at such an abstract topic teaches discipline and hard work. But
you could still teach a challenging math class without it being algebra. If you drop algebra because students can’t pass it why not drop other subjects that kids struggle with.

The failure rate for freshmen English is almost as high as algebra. Should we drop that as a requirement too?

My counter argument is that we already make these distinctions. Some kids
take physics, others don’t. Auto shop isn’t required despite the fact that most of us would benefit from knowledge of automobile workings.

It is extremely difficult to change anything in education. “I suffered through
it, so you should, too,” is the general philosophy of most communities.

Everyone wants educational reform, but your reform turns out to be anathema to my ideas and vice versa.

Well here is my reform. Stop requiring algebra for graduation.

(You can read more columns like this in the archives of Strictly Secondary.)

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