VIA the NYTimes: “Is Algebra Necessary?” by Andrew Hacker

I can’t say that I agree with Hacker’s position, that freshman algebra courses serve more of a gate-keeping than a preparatory function for high school and college students.  (The analogy might be to the Latin-based instruction in the classics, which was once seen as the primary purpose of secondary education)

Hacker writes:

Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

Part of the reason for my disquiet is the concern I voiced the other day about our excessively short-term focus in our definitions of “use” and “usefulness.”  But I think that we have reached a point where either significant educational resources (time, teachers, coursework, practice) will have to be poured into this kind of instruction, or some kind of alternative developed. So I think it worthwhile, even for advocates of freshman algebra instruction, to articulate a convincing account of how it helps students in and beyond school.



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