Math education is high on the list of both professional and lay “hot” topics. Everyone has an opinion. Andrew Hacker’s critique in Sunday’s New York Times was a pleasure to read, given that I agree with him. But he also managed to base his argument on unassailable facts. For example, only 7% of the job positions in America actually require algebraic knowledge. But 57% of all college entrants fail to finish college largely because they can’t pass algebra! The same goes for high school diplomas. The price they pay for this failure is disproportionate to its importance Hacker argues.
Such weighty and critical decisions, which influence the life careers of millions and the future of America (so we’re told), are rarely based upon a serious look at the “evidence”–mathematically objective data. When it comes to “evidence-based” judgments we pick and choose our evidence. We fail to use precisely the kind of thinking algebra is supposed to teach.
Arguing against Hacker, rknop makes an interesting argument in his Galactic Interactions blog—but one I suspect Hacker would agree with. He defends algebra on the basis of the importance of the Liberal Arts and citizenship vs. the economy. But both Hacker and I would then ask, Hacker and I would then ask: what’s the evidence for believing Algebra is good for the Liberal Arts?
Somewhere along the way it behooves us to challenge the 1893 curriculum. At Central Park East and Mission Hill we challenged HOW the required disciplines were assessed, but we didn’t go far enough in challenging why. For example, see how Marion Brady tackles the subject in a dramatically different way in his Washington Post article.
My proposal? For starters, every community and faculty should come up with a list, in order of importance, of the knowledge and habits of mind that they believe are critical to the exercise of good citizenly behavior. Then let the arguments begin. It might focus the ferocity of the arguments about algebra not to mention the value of a lot of the other requirements of formal education.
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