July 28th, 2012

The Five Percenters

Andrew Hacker of Queens College, writing in today’s New York Times, ends a must read essay titled “Is Algebra Necessary?" with this:

Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

Either have I. And it’s not just that I have an English teacher brain. It’s because, as Hacker notes:

…a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above.

Five percent! I know…we don’t know in high school which five percent of our kids will actually need to be proficient in algebra. So we make 100% of our kids try to master it just in case. That’s just silly. 

I agree with Hacker; every child needs basic math skills. And I think every child, especially today, needs a good dose of statistics in order to understand the tidal wave of data we’re subjected to on a daily basis. But I look at my own kids and wonder about all they ways they could be going deep into the things they love, becoming better, more effective learners in the process, rather than struggling through four years of stuff of which they will ever use only a small portion.

And, to be honest, this is not just about math. This is about unlearning and relearning a system that built a curriculum based on the idea that if kids didn’t get this concept or that in school, they may not get it anywhere else. The world has changed. Curriculum is everywhere. Learning math can happen at any time and almost anywhere.

Hacker asks:

Why do we subject American students to this ordeal?

I wonder too.

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