Advanced algebra not for every kid

Advanced Algebra not for Every Kid

In December, the Ohio Legislature approved a new “core curriculum” that today’s Ohio fifth-graders will have to successfully complete in order to graduate from high school. Beginning in 2010, students will be required to pass four years of mathematics, which must include both basic and advanced algebra. Ohio’s action mirrors similar legislation the state of Michigan enacted last March.

Currently, only a handful of states mandate that all students pass two years of algebra to graduate from high school, but more states are considering such a requirement. There are only two justifications for a state to require that a graduating high school student master a particular subject – it is of vital interest to the student, society, or both.

Please reminisce for a moment and recall the last time you found that it was in your self-interest to be able to apply the quadratic formula. You know, the one in which the opposite of the coefficient of the first-degree term added to, or subtracted from, the square root of four times the product of the coefficient of the second-degree term and the constant is subtracted from the square of the coefficient of the first-degree term – all of which is divided by twice the coefficient of the second-degree term.

If you are an algebra teacher, algebra student or algebra parent, making use of the quadratic formula may have been a recent experience for you, but my guess is that for just about everybody else it was when you took your last algebra test – or never.

Of course, no reasonable person can doubt the vital importance that mathematics has played in the advancement of societies. Without math there is no chemistry, physics or astronomy, and no Internet or HDTV either.

Nevertheless, as important as the benefits of the science of mathematics are to everyone, the fact of the matter is that most people can, do and will continue to lead very productive lives without having mastered algebra’s algorithms.

An unspoken truth is that not all students who enter high school have the intellectual capacity to be successful in second-year algebra. However, this is an addressable problem. The solution is to apply the same formula that school districts used when they started requiring geometry. “Dummy down” the course as needed.

This approach, however, presents a dilemma for another group of “more algebra” advocates who argue that the primary reason for requiring algebra is not for students to gain familiarity with polynomials, functions, equations, etc. as much as it is for students to internalize the “thinking” required to reach this comfort level.

The argument is that the thought process required to solve simultaneous equations is transferable to real world problems. The extent to which this is true is debatable. What is not debatable, in my view, is that in order to offer a second-year algebra course that every student in the school can pass will require replacing a lot of those thinking experiences with “extra credit” journals and scrapbooks.

Such a universalization of “advanced” algebra will, unintentionally, negate the only real value of the course for the vast majority of high school students – most colleges require it. A student’s high school math record is used by universities as a major tool to gauge a prospective student’s capability to learn at the college level.

The assumption being, of course, that a student who successfully completes advanced math courses is a better risk than one who doesn’t. Advanced math courses are considered good filters, but if algebra II becomes a required subject, universities will properly consider it “basic” rather than “advanced,” and, consequently, a student’s performance in the course will be no more useful to colleges as a gauge than any other required course.

So, the remaining question is how essential to our society is an algebra-literate citizenry? Would we be more secure? More prosperous? If requiring a second year of algebra in high school translated into a new generation of math scientists comprised of those who otherwise would be flipping burgers, that obviously would be a societal gain. But that is no more realistic than requiring every kid in high school to play football with the expectation of developing masses of otherwise undiscovered pros for the NFL.

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