All Calculators and No Brains: The Pros and Cons to High School Algebra

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

classroom, teacher, student (flickr user billerickson (cc:by-nc))

In his recent editorial for the New York Times, Andrew Hacker, professor of political science at Queens College in New York, asks “Is Algebra Necessary?” Hacker says that the millions of high school students and college freshmen taking mandatory mathematics aren’t actually learning much aside from tapping those calculators. He argues that instead, algebra is hindering students who are talented in other fields.
"First of all, when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), only about 5 percent of all Americans, six million out of 150 million employed Americans, use STEM skills in our jobs," Hacker says. 

After sitting in on classes and talking to educators across the country, Hacker says that math class is an unnecessary hoop to jump through on the way to graduation. "What the teachers tell me is that the largest single academic reason why students drop out of high school is algebra," the professor says. "Twenty-five percent of our ninth graders do not make it to graduation. That's a scandal." 

"Now what we do need [is] quantitative skills — how to use statistics, how to read statistics," Hacker says. He would like to see students being handed a copy of the recently passed Affordable Care Act instead of a sheet full of quadratic equations. Instead of Algebra II, students would enroll in "Citizen's Statistics" (Hacker admits that it's a working title).  

"This is not dumbing down, this is not how to balance your checkbook," he says. "Let's give students a couple hundred pages of print with all sorts of ideas and tables from all sides on what's going to happen with the new health care act, and let them go through it, research it, find out what are the facts, what are the fictions, what do we know, what are we guessing about. That, contrary to dumbing down, will be more difficult [and] more rigorous than geometry."  

Typically, the benefits of studying algebra are said to be improved abstract reasoning, logic, and problem solving, but Hacker categorizes those as "myths." 

"The people who have a vested interest in keeping algebra going, those who accept the myths and mystiques, will say virtually anything to defend it," Hacker says. "Certainly, I want people to have more quantitative skills, [but] it doesn't require any algebra — in fact, no math above long division and ratios." 


Andrew Hacker

Produced by:

Robert Balint and Paul R. Smith

Comments [23]

The picnic table epiphany, if I may call it that, is something many of us can relate to, and Andrew Hacker’s position may well be where the real “total fiction” lies. In point of fact, I had something of a Pythagorean moment myself once, while working on setting an outbuilding, and it led to an article titled “Homesteading with Pythagoras.” The link to it is here:

Aug. 07 2012 01:53 PM
DrSteveA from New York, NY

Hacker is mostly correct that our current junior high through high school math curriculum spends too much time on algebra (often the same material repeatedly over and over again over multiple years), leading to calculus or at least pre-calculus. Our current math curriculum is a relic of a bygone era, based on 19th Century ideal of the education a landed gentleman should have, notably algebra and trig in order to do land surveying and architecture. A modern, rigourous, scientific and nationally useful curriculum would spend much more time on logic, probabilty and statisics, which are not universally (or even often) taught as part of the mandatory universal curriculum. And insofar as something has to be reduced to make room, then advanced algebra should proably be it. This is not dumbing down. It is moving from 19th century to 21st century.

Aug. 01 2012 05:07 PM
kenneth s. bannerman from Montclair, NJ

Every course I took in high school or college, whether I liked it or not, has enriched my life in some way, even if I do not use the information at this time.

Aug. 01 2012 12:44 AM

It sounds like a clever excuese for underachievers.
People don't need to learn a lot of the subjects that are taught in high school or maybe even college. Why know about history unless you are going to become a historian? Why learn any kind of math that much above above simple division unless you are going to go into rocket science? Yet the idea of a basic high school education should partially be to send out students into the world having some significant knowledge of various subjects some of which they may never find employment in but which will make them ready to go in more than one direction as far as further education or eventual employment.
Also why do people assume that, as far as jobs are concenred, the way you feel as a teenager is how you will feel when you reach your 30s or older? Even if you are sure as a teen or young adult that you don't want to go into certain occupations , you might have to change career goals later in life and having had already studied certain "useless" subjects when you were younger may help.
If as a teen you think you will never want to be anything other than a horticulturist you just may go on to become one soon after high school but you may find that jobs in that field are scarse and you will need to consider going into a field in which there is job demand and you may have to go back to school to learn computer science or to become a pharmacist or go into some other technological or scientific endeavor. Wouldn't it be better if you don't have to start all over and learn what you should have learned already, at least knew basic algebra?
School should partially prepare people for career shifts by teaching various subjects particularly in math and science which relate to the needs of the future.
Of course some people think of education as something that gets in the way, but I think it would probably be disasterous to carry out the system of American education so that it is further watered- down . I think it would be particularly self defeating to populations that need to value education more, not less.
OK, perhaps there should be a per-case system in which a student, if s/he is sure that s/he wants to go into some occupation that won't require a knoledge of higher forms of math, may opt out of a big immersion in algebra (though s/he ought to be required to learn a few basics anyway).

Still, whatever happened to the idea that a mind is a terrible thing to waste?

Jul. 31 2012 06:43 PM
PBandJ from Brooklyn

It's apparent from the mean spirited comments here that insults are cheaper than a fair discussion on the merits of learning Algebra. There was NO mention in the debate about ditching Math or dumbing down HS/College degrees, just perhaps new look at Math classes. No harm done - not everyone's an Einstein or can make up quotes attributed to him. Sadly it seems like most agree the suffering should continue even though most kids cannot grasp the concepts - like an accepted form of hazing. I agree with the Professor that we need to improve the graduation rate and find a more practical alternate to Algebra as a requirement.

Jul. 31 2012 03:39 PM
Robyn from Brooklyn

I had to convince my administrators in high school to let me take regular level algebra even though I was enrolled in honors classes across the rest of my courses. I had such a hard time with math in general but especially algebra and would have gotten exceptionally low to failing marks had I been required to stay in the honors level. I think teaching kids how to do and understand filing taxes would be very helpful.

Jul. 31 2012 03:30 PM
Lisa from Union Square

Of course Algebra is necessary. We use it every day of our lives! It’s a way of processing information that is incorporated to any field. Critical thinking is important as students move on to college and will be working in this very complex technological society.

Jul. 31 2012 03:25 PM
Keith from Oklahoma City

Although only 15,000 degrees out of 1.6 million awarded (as cited in Professor Hacker's discussion today) were for math degrees, I'm curious to know how many degrees were awarded for any subject for which math is a foundation. While math may not be as important for political science, it is part of just about our entire infrastructure, from building roads, bridges, buildings; architecture; engineering; music; science; statistics; etc. (I'm willing to bet the ratio of degrees awarded where math is an important component would be closer or above 50%). Algebra is an integral component to our math knowledge.
I applaud The Takeaway for spurring a good conversation, but my take is that Prof. Hacker is taking an exceptionally narrow look at the importance of algebra and a foundation in math. Perhaps we do need to take a fresh look at how to make it more accessible to students, but not abandon it entirely!

Jul. 31 2012 12:43 PM

I use algebra everyday! It's just for household things, but I still need it. Even when I'm using a calculator, I need to know how to set up equations.
Also, how can anyone say we need to teach LESS math and science in the US??? We are so far behind, and so many people today don't have the skills in math and science necessary for the jobs that are waiting to be filled.
Finally, EVERYONE needs to be mathematically and scientifically literate if we are going to be good voters. We can't leave ALL the math knowledge to specialists, or else we'll have no basic intuition for when people are fudging numbers on us.

Jul. 31 2012 11:29 AM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

reading, writing, and no rith-me-tic? Come on, America is behind the (geometric) 8 ball partly because we are behind the rest of the world in Math.

The guy is wrong. Every kid needs to go through the punishment of Algebra. How many mathematicians would not have taken Algebra because they didn't have to?

Einstein would definitely not have taken Algebra if he wasn't pushed into it. He said so. (O.K. I made that up.)

I don't care that there is no good reason for 99 percent of the population to know Algebra. I need that one percent to learn it. We all have to suffer... for that one percent.

I think that once you see a student who is going to drop out, well, then you pull him aside and give him a free pass out of the class. He should have to do community service. He has to clean a Math Lab in a University. Send him off with an eraser.

It doesn't matter that I hardly ever use my square roots. I do have a sexy math joke. What is the square root of 69? Ate something. Get it? Probably not unless you took Trig

Do you really want a society who hears Pi R squared, and answer it by saying "Pie are square, my momma always makes pie and they are round!"

Jul. 31 2012 10:51 AM
Tsha from HHK, NJ

Congratulations to Celeste for maintaining an even tone in this interview. I've actually used algebra quite a few times--comes in very handy every once in a while. (Though sadly, I often have to find someone better than I was at it to help me remember the equation for how to find x.) Geometry, on the other hand, has proved entirely useless, but I LOVED IT! It was all so logical and neat. If math could've been ALL geometry I might be a mathematician today.

Jul. 31 2012 09:38 AM
Nancy W from Northville, MI

I am a pianist and private piano instructor. I also have held positions in employee relations and communications. Do I use algebra or geometry daily? No; however, I'm sure they did much to enhance my critical thinking skills, much like the music I teach enhances a student's general coordination, reading and collaborative skills. And I will say, geometry has come in handy as my husband and I have made home improvements on our own, determined the fall pattern of a dead tree we removed, and many other 'round-the-home projects. Yeah, math!

Jul. 31 2012 09:06 AM

Most people use at least simple algebra every month, if not every week. The problem most folks have with algebra isn't the actual math it is figuring out how to setup the equation(s) to solve and then applying the results. I had Algebra 1 over 30 years ago as my 8th grade math class, but I learned how to use algebra from my Dad a couple years earlier (and my Dad is not a math whiz) when I was trying to solve a math problem I saw on a quiz.

Geometry is another math discipline that is used all the time, though again most people do not recognize they are doing it. Geometry should be the minimum bar for the high school/GED. Both algebra and geometry provide the final basic math and logic skills needed to do most of the things for which a person will need math in life. The additional logical thinking skills are also important, even if some professors don’t recognize the value, possibly because THEY struggled (and continue to struggle) with those concepts.

It appears that Professor Hacker has an axe to grind because the rationale behind his assertion is not just faulty and flawed but it is also just downright silly at times. There are lots of reasons, beyond the difficulty, that people do not pursue math degrees at the college level, the first of which is JOBS. Those smart enough to earn a bachelors in math, are also capable of doing the math and know that they can apply their math skills more profitably with a degree in another field, like engineering.

Jul. 31 2012 09:00 AM
Harold W. Johnson from Grosse Pointe Park, MI

Algebra helps us organize our thoughts and solve life problems in personal finance, resource allocation, logistics, interpreting statistics put forth by politicians and many other areas.

Jul. 31 2012 08:51 AM

Learning algebra gives one basic thinking skills that one does use in everyday life. I'm 62 and we started learning algebra in 7 th grade. My kids were finding unknowns in third grade. If little kids can grasp the concepts, why can't high school kids? I agree with some things Professor Hacker said, but I don't think we should dumb down curriculum for the few people who can't grasp basic algebra, but perhaps it shouldn't be a graduation requirement for everyone. But give everyone the chance to learn it!

Jul. 31 2012 08:51 AM
Linus Gelber from Brooklyn, NY

Prof. Hacker's smarmy and condescending attitude is as telling as his nonsensical and specious style of argument. Perhaps if he'd paid more attention in his algebra classes, he'd understand how silly he sounds.

Jul. 31 2012 08:37 AM
Amber Wulle from Utah

My undergraduate degree was in Philosophy, so I could argue most of my degree was useless. However, because of what I learned in those classes, I could also easily argue otherwise.

Not everything we learn is directly useful. Algebra is a great prequal for symbolic logic. I do not think everyone needs a formal course in that, but they need the basic skills. We lack basic logic already. There could be alternatives, but I do not see them in the guests option.

Jul. 31 2012 08:36 AM
JACK5555 from Queens

Alarms are going off in my head. Hacker has passed "misguided" and is approaching "dangerous"

Jul. 31 2012 08:36 AM
Karl from Denver from Denver


The only "bad" grade I got was in penmanship. I fought to get into a typing class the next year and was the first boy allowed to learn to type at my school. The next semester, having become the most proficient typist in the class, I had to fight to get out as the teach taught the girls how to make coffee for the boss.

Typewriters and, then, computers, make penmanship pretty much obselete, except as an admirable art form.

Jul. 31 2012 08:35 AM
JACK5555 from Queens

I guess using this logic an athlete has no need to do calisthenics, sit-ups or pushups because he doesn't do these activities when he performs. America is getting dumber by the day.

Jul. 31 2012 08:28 AM
Karl from Detroit

There is a word for a person who cares to know nothing beyond what is necessary. That word is "moron."if we continue to indulge this kind of discourse on public radio we will become an entire nation of them. Without algebra we would be living in the stone age. The animals can teach us how to grunt and swallow and clean ourselves. The role of education is to impart the scope and potential of the human mind. Without that, there is no hope for civilization.

Jul. 31 2012 08:24 AM
James Montalvo

We can use algebra to calculate what portion of our taxes are being wasted paying A. Hacker's salary, who we hired at the Queens College of the City University of New York to promote education not dumb it down. Who then is to decide who is selected for algebra and who is not? We can import advisors from overseas where such decisions are readily made everyday.

Jul. 31 2012 07:02 AM
Lucy Curci-Gonzalez from No NJ

Geometry I've never used it . Latin, Algebra, Italian, Spanish, history, poetry, biology, philosophy, writing, poetry, literature, grammar, chemistry, theology, accounting, trig, statistics and physics have all come in handy in my personal and professional life, but geometry, never.

Jul. 31 2012 06:33 AM

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