# The Algebra Column Andrew Hacker Should Have Written

July 31, 2012 2 Comments

Yesterday I rambled on about various philosophical problems with Andrew Hacker’s column on not needing algebra, but today I’ve managed to boil down my general frustrations to a single point: Hacker astutely identifies a serious problem and then goes on to propose a ludicrous solution.

Hacker bases his case on the fact that some kids who are capable of contributing to society are shut out of the mechanism through which that can happen — college — because they can’t do algebra. Clearly this is a problem worth solving. Not getting a diploma is a terrible outcome that has a host of negative externalities relating to things like crime and the straining of the social safety net. Hacker’s mistake is that his solution of not requiring kids to learn algebra is killing a fly with a sledgehammer.

If the goal is to help kids who are bad at algebra, there are countless thing we can do that are better than uprooting our current system of standards. For example, why not work to create a legitimate credentialing system for kids who can’t do math? There’s a “Harvard” of everything these days, why can’t there be a “Harvard of people who are bad at math.” If Hacker thinks these kids need to be in the “normal” higher education system, then he should advocate for a rigorous high school aptitude test that doesn’t include math. I’m confident that if students were getting high scores on a math-less, SAT-ish test that had difficult English and humanities sections, colleges would take a look a them. Finally, if Hacker is worried about these kids getting high school diplomas, he should advocate for special no-math graduation tracks for students who demonstrate ability and dedication in other areas. All of these solutions are more feasible and more productive than arguing that our education system should be less focused on STEM.

Hacker’s motivation is noble — he wants the kids who don’t do algebra to be part of the same system as everybody else. But more inclusion isn’t always the answer. Hacker and the kids he’s concerned about will ultimately be better off if he focuses on an attainable, victimless solution, even if it means making some kids part of a separate system.

There is a Harvard of people who are bad at math. It’s called Harvard Law School. Only partly kidding; many of my colleagues admit that they went to law school because “there’s no math on the LSAT.”

It looks like one thing that many agree on is that our current teaching of math sucks.

In defense of both Dr. Hacker and you, I use algebra all the time: I have to figure out how much paint to purchase for my walls or how much carpet I need to cover my floors. I need to schedule rooms and events that often requires me to use algebra. However, this math is perhaps more commonly called “pre-algebra.” I have never used long strings of polynomials, and I feel my time in classes in which I was taught this skill was a waste of time when I could have spent it in more relevant pursuits.

So I feel we need to decide when math and algebra get complex enough to be specialized, making these course electives and options and allowing students to take classes more relevant to their interests and careers.