This week’s Fall Through the Cracks Friday post comes from an opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times called “Is Algebra Necessary?” If you’d asked me prior to reading the piece I would have said absolutely, but author Andrew Hacker makes multiple compelling points while suggesting other, perhaps more relevant, areas of study. From the article:
Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job. John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied math education, has found that “mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.” Even in jobs that rely on so-called STEM credentials — science, technology, engineering, math — considerable training occurs after hiring, including the kinds of computations that will be required. Toyota, for example, recently chose to locate a plant in a remote Mississippi county, even though its schools are far from stellar. It works with a nearby community college, which has tailored classes in “machine tool mathematics.”
That sort of collaboration has long undergirded German apprenticeship programs. I fully concur that high-tech knowledge is needed to sustain an advanced industrial economy. But we’re deluding ourselves if we believe the solution is largely academic.
A skeptic might argue that, even if our current mathematics education discourages large numbers of students, math itself isn’t to blame. Isn’t this discipline a critical part of education, providing quantitative tools and honing conceptual abilities that are indispensable — especially in our high tech age? In fact, we hear it argued that we have a shortage of graduates with STEM credentials.
Of course, people should learn basic numerical skills: decimals, ratios and estimating, sharpened by a good grounding in arithmetic. But a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above. And if there is a shortage of STEM graduates, an equally crucial issue is how many available positions there are for men and women with these skills. A January 2012 analysis from the Georgetown center found 7.5 percent unemployment for engineering graduates and 8.2 percent among computer scientists.
Peter Braunfeld of the University of Illinois tells his students, “Our civilization would collapse without mathematics.” He’s absolutely right.
Algebraic algorithms underpin animated movies, investment strategies and airline ticket prices. And we need people to understand how those things work and to advance our frontiers.
Quantitative literacy clearly is useful in weighing all manner of public policies, from the Affordable Care Act, to the costs and benefits of environmental regulation, to the impact of climate change. Being able to detect and identify ideology at work behind the numbers is of obvious use. Ours is fast becoming a statistical age, which raises the bar for informed citizenship. What is needed is not textbook formulas but greater understanding of where various numbers come from, and what they actually convey.
What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.
Many of those who struggled through a traditional math regimen feel that doing so annealed their character. This may or may not speak to the fact that institutions and occupations often install prerequisites just to look rigorous — hardly a rational justification for maintaining so many mathematics mandates. Certification programs for veterinary technicians require algebra, although none of the graduates I’ve met have ever used it in diagnosing or treating their patients. Medical schools like Harvard and Johns Hopkins demand calculus of all their applicants, even if it doesn’t figure in the clinical curriculum, let alone in subsequent practice. Mathematics is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status.
It’s not hard to understand why Caltech and M.I.T. want everyone to be proficient in mathematics. But it’s not easy to see why potential poets and philosophers face a lofty mathematics bar. Demanding algebra across the board actually skews a student body, not necessarily for the better.
What are your thoughts on the algebra issue – is it something the American educational system should continue to mandate? We welcome your comments.
And while we’re on the algebra issue, our FTTCF piece from late June on why we solve for “x” (vs. some other character) is an interesting watch.