The Case Against Algebra 2

SMW, October 11, 2013 9:05 PM

"Algebra 2 Common Core (textbook) is, in other words, a typical, old-fashioned algebra textbook.  It's a highly efficient engine for the creation of math rage: a dead scrap heap of repellent terminology, a collection of spiky, decontextualized, multistep mathematical black-box techniques that you must practice over and over and get by heart in order to be ready to do something interesting later on, when the time comes."
-Nicholson Baker, Harper's

Algebra 2 as the "Decider"

by C.J. Westerberg

It seems as if we've been seeing many more articles about WHAT students should learn in school perhaps as an offshoot of discussions about The Common Core, the new standards being adopted by states of what our students should learn year-by-year. Yet we tend to tip-toe around what we should eliminate or make as an elective while we keep layering more knowledge and skill requirements into student backpacks.

One of the subjects up for discussion is Algebra II inspired by Nicholson Baker's article, Wrong Answer  - The Case Against Algebra II in Harper's magazine. Curiously enough, I found it by chance after having a lengthy discussion with some friends about advanced high school math relevance and sure enough the rationale voiced was how Algebra 2 is necessary for students to "learn how to learn" or to "learn how to think" or to "develop the brain".  As if nothing else can?  But back to the larger point.

Curiously, what was not mentioned by anyone in our conversation that day is how important Algebra 2 is for college entry as a gatekeeper "subject". These were the same parents who are willing and able to spring for SAT test prep and the like but it struck me how decontextualized even our conversations about education are in reality (unless the adults were in some form of  denial, maybe even by design). 

In any event, the aforementioned Baker skewers this algebra obsession throughout his lively and lengthy article:

"We've once again gotten ourselves caught up in a 
strangely self-destructive cold war with other high-achieving countries.
The recruits are young teenagers,
their ammunition the little bubbles on standardized tests. 
America's technological future hinges, say the rigorists, on
 whether our student population can plus-and-chug the binomial theorem better than, say, Korean or Finnish or German or Chinese students. 
The childishness of this hypernationalistic mentality depresses me,
and I want it to end,
and I am not alone."

Ouch, them those (sic) are fighting words.  As you can tell, the provocative Baker has a flair for the dramatic with his writing so even a topic like Algebra can have sparks flying. After reading his full missive (which is under lock so you either have to buy it or visit library), I thought that so much of what Baker was REALLY arguing about was how poorly Algebra 2 is taught, so no wonder why so many students hate it.  An excerpt (parens added mine): 

dumb.donkey.Math-Koretz.jpgCornell's Steven Strogatz, a mathematician of crowds and swarms and oscillating bridges, told me that he agreed with much of what Hacker wrote (Is Algebra Necessary?). "As someone who is working on the front lines, it's alarming to me, and discouraging, that year after year I see such a large proportion of people really not learning anything - and just suffering while they're doing it."
We need less math for the average kid, Strogatz said, but more meaningful math.
"We spend a lot of time avalanching students with answers to things that they wouldn't think of asking."

This line of attack, along with the quote at the header of this post, are not so much a case against Algebra 2 but how it is taught, learned, and not learned.  Baker's insistence about eliminating Algebra 2 for all is not quite as convincing, especially since he relegates to non-algebra students limited career options, not exactly an ideal situation for a student to mis-calculate his or her life path as early as high school.

He gives us an interesting history lesson how the same is-algebra-worth-it arguments arose in the early 1900s to the point that by 1950, only 25% of high school students were taking algebra.  Who knew?  He goes on to say that "In the misty childhood days of IBM's Louis Gerstner (who would later co-found Achieve) and of a thousand other brilliant businessmen, inventors, engineers, and innovators, algebra was a nonexistent force in the lives of the majority of high school students."  And in spite of this low percentage, "Dictaphones were king and food engineers gave us mashed-potato flakes, when GM was designing the Chevy small-block V-8 engine, when missile silos held freshly minted hydrogen bombs and Admiral Hyman Rickover's nuclear-powered submarines patrolled the waves . . ."  An illuminating argument on one hand but in our increasingly technological and global world, not sure ALL
the parallels hold up.  One just needs to visit Conrad Wolfram's site, TED video, and argument for a wake-up call on this angle about math education. 

I would have, instead, preferred more of these conversations and arguments:

One more excerpt from Nicholson's piece that may give you a laugh since it is one of those time-travel blasts from the past:

Dean was a former engineer and a graduate of MIT who had taught math for years: his column, called Your Boy and Your Girl, was full of compassion and good sense. In an item published on March 27, 1930, Dean wrote:

I cannot see that algebra contributes one iota to a young person's health or one
grain of inspiration to his spirit  . . It is the one subject in the curriculum that has kept children from finishing high school, from developing their special interests and from enjoying much of their home study work.  It has caused more family rows, more tears, more heartaches and more sleepless nights than any other school subject.

One final thought - there will always be the voices that say, "Oh, let students just suck it up like we did when we were in high school," or "students just don't try hard enough (ie. not enough grit)."   Those casual dismissals are a cop-out. Teachers are often caught in the middle.

This could be an amazing time for math in this country.  We can do better.

Related articles:

Why Our Kids Don't Get Math by Dr. Joseph Ganem

Is Math Art? Dream or Nightmare?  A Mathematician's Lament - C.J. Westerberg recommends

Math: What Content Should We Teach?  featuring High Tech High's Ben Daley

Why I Would Fail Third Grade Math by Joseph Ganem, Ph.D

  • i think the undergraduate curriculum of the social sciences, particularly finance and economics, has become unnecessariy mathized because of the "physics envy" factor. educators in these fields aspire to mathemaics as way of establishing their credentials as a science. i wrote a paper to argue that this practice does not really serve the average undergraduate student's needs and that there are alternative ways to teach finance that makes it easier for non-math people to learn. if you have time to read the paper i would be grateful for your comments. here is the link:

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