Is it Worth Sacrificing Algebra to Help the Weakest Students?

There are a number of odd arguments about the importance of math in Andrew Hacker’s NYT Op-Ed, “Is Algebra Necessary?” (John Patty does a nice job running through them), but the section on how math affects attainment was particularly frustrating because Hacker exaggerates the scope of the problem in order to make his solution less controversial. In doing so, he dances around some important issues that get to the heart of what he’s trying to say. Here’s Hacker on the issue of high school dropouts:

The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that “to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.” For those who stay in school, there are often “exit exams,” almost all of which contain an algebra component. In Oklahoma, 33 percent failed to pass last year, as did 35 percent in West Virginia

Hacker clearly wants to make it possible for more students to get high school diplomas, but at the moment society has intentionally constructed diplomas to signal a certain amount of math skill. This makes the algebra requirement helpful for those who can pass it. When you lower the standards needed to graduate you harm the students capable of reaching the higher standards.

Furthermore, colleges and employers need to know that somebody with a diploma can do a certain level of math. In that sense it’s not a bug that 33% of Oklahoma kids failed to pass, it’s a feature. And given all the anecdotal evidence that there’s a shortage of skilled workers in the country, I’m not sure many would agree that our current level of required math knowledge is above the socially optimal level.

Hacker’s response would be to say “screw society and the high achievers, I’m trying to help the kids who really need help.” That’s a legitimate goal to have, but I wish Hacker would come right out and say that rather disguise it in the dubious notion that eliminating algebra will help everybody. The fact is, the vast majority of students are intelligent enough to pass high school algebra. A significantly lower number actually do so because they attend failing schools, live in deteriorating neighborhoods, or lack interest in educational achievement, but none of these dropouts can be blamed on math. Hacker’s proposal won’t help everybody — think of the kid who falls in love with engineering in college but now lacks a sufficient math background — but he’s right to assume it will help those least likely to graduate from high school.

One of my policy fantasies is to get education reformers in a room and have them hold a debate about Christopher Jencks’ 1988 Ethics article on what makes a fair or equitable distribution of educational resources. In the article Jencks weighs a number of different types of fairness: focusing an equal amount of attention on every student, focusing more on students who achieve the most, focusing more on students who try the hardest, or focusing more on students who are the most disadvantaged. Hacker clearly seems to be advocating for the final option. He can dance around the issue all he likes, but the bottom line is that he’s proposing a radical reorganization of educational standards in order to benefit the very lowest achievers — those whose aspirations are most likely to be stymied because they are incapable of passing high school algebra. That’s a legitimate argument to make, and I wish Hacker would actually put himself out there and make it instead of concocting a story about how lower math standards will help everybody.

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