-Nicholson Baker, Harper's
Algebra 2 as the "Decider"
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:
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):
Cornell'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:
- Algebra 2 could be taken in college, like Nobel Prize winner E.O. Wilson, and
- make math a gateway, not a gatekeeper to college, and
- that perhaps substituting other logic-inducing courses such as coding which may appeal to more hands-on learners who would like to produce something at the end of a day instead of just a grade score -see video below from Code HS (disclosure: no business relationship w/TDR), or
- perhaps using a completely new way to look at math such as those that use a more cross-disciplinary approach also using rigorous project-based learning, and
- more emphasis on data and statistics as being top-of-the-math pyramid rather than calculus,
- understanding how long students may retain their algebraic learning (here as quoted as two years!), or
- perhaps using more internship opportunities, projects, and real-world open-ended investigations that involve more advanced math instead of teaching it in the usual decontextualized manner as Dr. David Perkins advises, or
- active engagement in math learning through inquiry, hands-on, and visual learning rather than just practicing procedures, as Dr. Joanne Boaler from Stanford advocates for with much brouhaha.
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.
This could be an amazing time for math in this country. We can do better.
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