There's an article in the New York Times that caught my eye, mainly because I was one of those unfortunate souls who suffered mightily at the hands of the Algebra Gods in high school.
Andrew Hacker's essay about the staggering effects of our insistence on requiring algebra in high school hit a nerve with this blogger.
I took four years of high school algebra. Flunked Algebra I, took it my sophomore year and earned a charity "D" from a teacher who had mercy on my ignorant ass. Little did she know I would be forced to sign up for Algebra II the following year and that she would have to put up with me again. I flunked Algebra II with even worse scores than I'd brought home the first two years. My senior year saw me suffering through Algebra II a second time, again dragging home a "D" I probably didn't deserve.
I'm not an idiot. I'm actually pretty decent with numbers. But for some reason, when the numbers are mixed in with half of the alphabet and strange symbols are tossed into the soup for added confusion, my mind just locks up. You might as well be screaming at me in Hungarian.
Here's what made it even worse for me: Whenever I asked the adults (who insisted I would need algebra) to give me one good example of how it was necessary in their adult lives after school, all I got for an answer was "Well, it's a requirement, so you have to take it."
WTF? Now, I'm not blasting mathematics. Kids HAVE to learn basic mathematics skills, and more advanced courses in geometry and trig will have to have a basis in algebraic ability. If someone is employed as a tool and dye maker, or an architect, I can see why mastering algebra would be essential to those occupations. But why is it required of all high schoolers?
Here are some boring ol' numbers for you taken from Hacker's article: one out of every four 9th graders in America fails to receive a high school diploma. In South Carolina, 34% dropped out in 2008-9. In Nevada that percentage was 45%. One of the primary reasons for the high rates of failure? Algebra. National transcripts show that math courses account for twice as many "D"s and "F"s as any other subject.
Schools now require exit exams, and almost all of them contain an algebra component. Don't pass the exam, you don't graduate. 33% of high school seniors in Oklahoma fail the exit exam. That number is 35% in West Virginia.
Here's another stat you can ignore: only 58% of college students manage to earn a bachelor's degree. The primary drop out cause? Mathematics, with algebra being the main culprit.
How many kids who might have excelled at subjects other than math have been denied high school diplomas or a chance to attend a college or university because of their struggles with algebra? How many writers, historians, sociologists, or biologists have seen their dreams crushed because of a math course they probably never would have needed in the real world?
Personally, I've never once had the need to break out an algebra formula in my adult life.
Not once. I don't know anyone who has, actually.
And yet, there it is. Required. Like oxygen. You pass these mandatory torture sessions or you don't pass go and you don't get the $200. No college for you! Line up at the unemployment office, we'll see if we can find you something in fast food in a year or two.
Isn't it time we removed this ridiculous stumbling block and allowed our kids to reach their potential? I'm not trying to dumb down our school systems. God knows, that would be hard to do. But in the case of algebra, maybe it's time we took a long hard look at the devastating effects that requirement has taken on our schools' graduation rates.
If I'm wrong about this, I'd love to hear the reasoning.