The Great Algebra Debate

Math Mavens Ask Whether We All Need to Know That X + Y = Z

High school math has become a battleground in the American education system as pundits, policymakers, and educators war over how and when to teach it—and whom to teach it to. We all can agree that math skills are vital for the next generation of scientists, computer programmers, and engineers—but what level of mastery do the rest of us need to attain? In advance of the Zócalo event “How Much Does Math Matter?”, we asked people who write about, study, and teach math, should we all have to master algebra?

Lynn Arthur Steen

No. The ability to think intelligently about numbers is more important.

Math does matter, and it matters a lot. Those who are able to think quantitatively have a leg up in many walks of life. But for most people the most important math is not algebra but numeracy—the ability to think intelligently about quantities that matter in their lives such as student loans, mortgages, or the benefits of diversifying investments. For our nation, numeracy helps voters think through issues as different as the cost of health care, the death toll from handguns, and the fairness of taxes.

To think clearly about the things that matter to citizens in a democracy, we need to understand data and to reason with proportions. Quantitative reasoning matters to everyone and should be part of every school subject so it is widely used and repeatedly reinforced. Math that is seen only in math class is rarely mastered or used.

This reality raises this math-related question: if it’s numeracy that is so important, why do schools require algebra? Because society has set up tollgates on the road to college that cannot be passed without an algebra passport. High school exit exams, the SAT and the ACT all test algebra. (Numeracy is largely absent.) Consequently, well-meaning advisors always urge students to master algebra.

Indeed, algebra opens the doors to many careers. Yet many jobs depend more on “soft” skills such as teamwork, communication, and dependability. Because it is the job of education to open doors, everyone should be offered algebra and helped to learn it.  But it is not a sine qua non for a rewarding, responsible, productive life. No one should be denied access to further education just because they cannot pass an algebra test.

Lynn Arthur Steen is professor emeritus of mathematics at St. Olaf College, Minnesota.

Gina D. Dalma

Yes, it’s the basis for much of high school and higher education.

Competence in mathematics is essential for functioning in everyday life as well as for success in our increasingly knowledge-based economy. Success in Algebra I, in particular, is commonly recognized as a gatekeeper to the college-preparatory track.

Students who successfully complete Algebra I by eighth or ninth grade are far more likely to take calculus in high school and pursue higher education than those who do not. This is not only a matter of sequence—in terms of completing the mathematics requirements for college admission—but also of building the structure to support students’ future learning and success. Algebra I is the first time that students are expected to understand and work with abstract concepts. Inability to do this well will make all subsequent mathematics learning difficult and limit students’ career opportunities.

Despite the many signs that point to the importance of algebra, an alarming number of students are not prepared to study algebra, are not taught algebra effectively and do not successfully complete algebra. The numbers are particularly high for English-learners, students of color and low-income students—who are fast becoming the majority of our student population in California.

Disparities in the quality of education contribute to gaps in student achievement. Teachers are central to improving student outcomes, yet in schools with high percentages of English-learners, students of color and low-income students, teachers tend to be less experienced, are more likely to lack full credentials and have less access to professional development and opportunities to learn from other teachers. Research also supports the importance of rigorous curricula and high expectations as a means to improving students’ academic achievement. However, schools serving a high percentage of English-learners, low-income students and students of color are less likely to offer rigorous, high-quality math curriculum, and staff are more likely to have lower expectations around student performance.

Mathematics achievement needs to be a civil right—as Bob Moses, founder of the The Algebra Project, put it, “Every child wants to learn, every child wants to better themselves, and every child wants to stand on their two feet, have a dignified life. Math is not easy. But in this day and age, because of the technology shift, if we don’t have it, we will be exactly like the sharecroppers who couldn’t read and write.”

It is critical to invest in programs that improve the way teachers teach, and the way students learn, mathematics.

Gina D. Dalma is a program officer at Silicon Valley Community Foundation, where she oversees grant-making focused on closing the middle-school achievement gap in mathematics.

RiShawn Biddle

Yes, it brings advantages in careers, future earnings and further education.

One thing is clear: Everyone, especially our children, should master algebra. Why? For one, strong math skills are critical to our children (especially those from poor and minority backgrounds) attaining the science and technology jobs that will allow them to earn an additional $500,000 in lifetime earnings. Algebra and other math knowledge are important in the kind of high-paying blue-collar jobs, such as welding and machine tool-and-die making, that allow our kids to become part of the middle class. For adults, the ability to utilize algebra and other forms of high-level math in analyzing statistics and data has become as important in jobs such as marketing as it is in engineering.

Mastering algebra also helps people understand the abstract concepts that often come up in business, economics, and politics. A person with a working knowledge of algebra also will be able to understand why the Laffer Curve matters in discussions about taxation. Mastering algebra and math helps us further our knowledge of all kinds of subjects, including music, architecture and fine arts.

When our children take algebra—and take plenty of other high-level math courses over time—they are more likely to stay on course to graduating from high school and completing higher education. As California State University Fullerton psychologist Allen W. Gottfried has noted, the earlier children get into math courses and succeed in mastering computations and equations, the more likely they will take on new challenges in other subjects. When children are challenged to learn more, they develop the knowledge and resiliency needed to stay on the path to lifelong success.

Everyone, especially our children, should master algebra. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, algebra is critical to stemming economic inequality, and to building a better society.

RiShawn Biddle is editor of Dropout Nation, an education news publication, a columnist with The American Spectator, and a communications consultant.

Rochelle Gutiérrez

No. Let’s stop teaching math like an abstraction and start teaching it as a human practice.

Mastering algebra has clear benefits. It allows one to identify simplicity in a complex world, and to see relationships between groups. Algebra can position a person to be accepted into college and a math-based career with higher earning potential. Some might even say it can prepare a person for the technological world in which we live. Yet, the pre-occupation with Algebra as a U.S. topic in mathematics courses is simply a remnant of our push to get kids to prepare for college, not life. That is, with algebra as the path to calculus, and with calculus as the gatekeeper to college entrance or graduation, few students study geometry, probability, or statistics to the same extent.

Algebra is difficult for many people because it relies on abstraction and is written in its own language – a dense, symbolic form (x + y = z). There is a societal bias at work. Western societies privilege abstraction as the highest form of intellect, so algebra becomes an important hinge for progress because we equate progress and education with more abstract thinking. The dark side of this thinking applied to Algebra classes in schools, is that we see the ability to derive or manipulate an equation is more important than understanding what that equation means in context. Thus, those who cannot learn Algebra are seen as unintelligent. When students are told so, their identity can be affected negatively, in ways that persist long into adulthood.

Being intellectual in our society often requires ignoring context and considering things in general terms. But when you ignore context and specifics, you may also fail to recognize important things: humanity, emotions, individual cases, and values. When you establish a universal standard for math education, you can elevate one truth as the superior way of doing things, and define some cultures and people as deviant or primitive. In this context, the requirement to learn algebra in school can be seen as a form of micro-aggression in that it teaches people to shut down a natural disposition towards seeing humanity in the world and acknowledging different perspectives.

As we progress as a nation and push to have more students master Algebra and enter STEM fields, we must consider how this emphasis will influence the kinds of citizens we create. Learning and mathematics should not be seen as disembodied acts in which one’s identity and body is left at the door, as work is done with brain and pencil. Rather, mathematics should be seen as a human practice.

Rochelle Gutiérrez is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Latina/Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She runs an after-school mathematics club that involves the body and gets adolescents to rethink mathematics and who is capable of doing it.

Robert “Bob” Parris Moses

Yes, because we’re in a new age, and being a full citizen with constitutional power requires it.

We need algebra if we all want to be twenty-first century “Constitutional People.” Why? Let’s consider this as a series of questions and answers:

What is happening? 

The planet is transitioning from its Industrial Age to its Information Age. The Industrial Age’s mechanized physical labor demanded “citizens” with reading and writing literacy standards, plus Post-Office arithmetic, to drive its economies. Those denied access to these literacies—like Mississippi-Delta sharecroppers so famously embraced by the Student-Nonviolent-Coordinating-Committee (SNCC)–were Industrial Age “serfs.”

What happened?

We began our nation with two distinct classes of “WE THE PEOPLE”:

1. Constitutional People

2. Constitutional Property (cf. Article IV, Section 2, paragraph 3), a.k.a. enslaved African-Americans.

A Constitutional conundrum lasting for three-quarters of a century (1787- 1865) until Constitutional People went to war against one another over their Constitutional Property. Those that prevailed:

1. Demolished the “Constitutional Property” concept (13th Amendment)

2. Inducted Ex-Constitutional Property into “WE THE PEOPLE” as Constitution People (14th Amendment)

3. Established a Constitutional  right to vote (15th Amendment).

Not so fast! 

The Nation (North, South, East, West) for the next three quarters of a century (1890 – 1965) agreed to replace “Constitutional Property” with “Constitutional Caste”. By the 1960s the “Constitutional Caste” crowd had had it. They earned an insurgency that removed “Constitutional Caste” from:

1. Public Accommodations

2. Access to the 15th Amendment right to vote.

3. Access to national Democratic Party structures and nominations. Despite the success of that insurgency, otherwise known as the civil rights movement, Public and Private Education’s “Constitutional Caste” endured. Even so, there is empirical evidence for the following trend: Every three-quarters of a century the Nation lurches into an expansion of its “WE THE PEOPLE”, its class of “Constitutional People”. We are two-thirds of the way into our third such ‘lurch’:  It’s time to include the children.

We should begin by elevating into the Constitution their access to a Quality Public School Education: “Welcome young people into the class of Constitutional People”.

Do you all have to master algebra?  Yes, if you all intend to be twenty-first century “Constitutional People” rather than Information Age ‘serfs’.

Put it this way:

1. Algebra and Logic have replaced post-office Arithmetic

2. The Information Age puts quantitative literacy on the table with reading and writing literacy standards needed to drive Information Age economies.

3. It’s doable (see the Algebra Project, and The Young People’s Project, )

Robert “Bob” Parris Moses  is co-author of Radical Equations—Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Beacon, 2001) and co-editor of Quality Education as a Constitutional Right-creating a grassroots movement to transform public schools (Beacon Press, 2010).

Primary Editor: Joe Mathews.
*Photo courtesy of Mouzzy. Photo of Robert “Bob” Parris Moses by Michael Lisnet, Math for America.
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