Would US Education Be Better If We Replaced Algebra Requirements With Stats & Logic?

from the reshuffling dept

By now you may have heard about the NY Times article from over the weekend in which political science professor Andrew Hacker makes the somewhat contrarian suggestion that the US education system would function much better if we ditched algebra requirements. The whole article is worth reading, but the basic gist of it is that many people who end up dropping out of school do so in part because of trouble they have in getting past basic algebra. It's a key stumbling block.
California's two university systems, for instance, consider applications only from students who have taken three years of mathematics and in that way exclude many applicants who might excel in fields like art or history. Community college students face an equally prohibitive mathematics wall. A study of two-year schools found that fewer than a quarter of their entrants passed the algebra classes they were required to take.

"There are students taking these courses three, four, five times," says Barbara Bonham of Appalachian State University. While some ultimately pass, she adds, "many drop out."

Another dropout statistic should cause equal chagrin. Of all who embark on higher education, only 58 percent end up with bachelor's degrees. The main impediment to graduation: freshman math. The City University of New York, where I have taught since 1971, found that 57 percent of its students didn't pass its mandated algebra course. The depressing conclusion of a faculty report: "failing math at all levels affects retention more than any other academic factor." A national sample of transcripts found mathematics had twice as many F's and D's compared as other subjects.
I will admit that my initial reaction to this article was to scoff and think that it's ridiculous. Understanding basic algebra, to me, seems fundamental to understand a variety of other important things -- including some forms of logic and statistics. So, I wondered how dropping algebra as a requirement might make those already lacking fields even worse.

However, Hacker's piece actually suggests something of a solution: potentially replacing algebra with a form of statistics, which is rarely a required course.
Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call "citizen statistics." This would not be a backdoor version of algebra, as in the Advanced Placement syllabus. Nor would it focus on equations used by scholars when they write for one another. Instead, it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.

It could, for example, teach students how the Consumer Price Index is computed, what is included and how each item in the index is weighted - and include discussion about which items should be included and what weights they should be given.
I will admit to being unsure how such a class will work without a basic underpinning in algebra. However, conceptually, what Hacker is saying makes sense. Focusing on the formulaic side of algebra isn't particularly practical for many people. I could see how classes that focus on practical mathematical skills around statistics and logic, could actually be a lot more useful. And while he says these don't need to be "backdoor" algebra classes, I'm not so sure that's a bad thing. Having people understand the basics of algebra by putting them in realistic situations they understand, and showing how to apply such things in a useful manner doesn't seem like such a bad idea...

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  1. icon
    Dionaea (profile), 31 Jul 2012 @ 12:46pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Real world skills

    "The fossil record does not show any missing links. Every time a new fossil is found, it is deemed a new species. We do not have one species as it "evolved" over time. If we do, please cite it for me."

    This is in fact logical if you have a clue as to how evolution works. You can even see it now in the world. Some species are hugely succesfull, while others aren't. The ones which are successfull are much more likely to turn into a fossil than those rare species which are less well adapted. And that's where you have to look for your missing link, which you won't find, because the chances of those fossilizing are slim. Furthermore evolution is a punctuated equilibrium, evolution speeds up enormously if large changes in environment take place, which means these 'missing links' aren't around for a long time, making the chance of them fossilizing even smaller. Furthermore, this 'missing link' thing is an unsolvable problem since creationists will just keep asking for more, no matter how many gaps you fill, all they see is two new gaps before and after the 'missing link' you've just found.

    "We have skeletons of early man that turn out to be apes. We have DNA in dinosaurs that should should not have survived 65+ million years. Unless of course, the dinosaurs aren't that old."

    Who determines when a hominid becomes a human instead of an ape? Exactly, it's just a formality. And your dinosaur DNA turned out to be human. Contamination.

    "We age rock layers by the fossils found in them and we age fossils by the rock layer they were found in. Pretty circular logic."

    Ahahahaha XD How funny. You obviously don't know what you're talking about. The ages of rock layers can only be determined using radioactive isotopes (Uranium or Potassium-Argon dating). What you're talking about here are biomarkers, which have been determined to be abundant during a certain period in time and can therefore be used to determine a rock was from that specific period of time. But this in no way provides an age, it simply places the rock formation in a certain era. You can only attach an AGE to your formation if the age of the layers belonging to that era has been determined using an exact dating method. So why not just do the exact method for all the tiem? 1. The public doesn't want to pay for it. 2. Not all rocks are suitable 3. Biomarkers are faster and easier. A proper geologist knows this.

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