Saturday, January 25, 2020
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Brooklyn student says math skills are important

Lucy Brownstein, a student in Brooklyn, New York, says she disagrees with a February 7 op-ed in the New York Times by Andrew Hacker, who wrote that since only 5 percent of people use algebra or geometry in their jobs, students don’t need to learn these subjects.

I also disagree, but maybe not for the same reasons.

First, Mr Hacker didn’t say “all” students didn’t need algebra and geometry, just some, but I think Ms Brownstein got the gist spot on.

“The point of learning is to understand the world,” she argues. “If the only point of learning is job preparation, why should students learn history, or read Shakespeare?”

Plus, many jobs require the ability to make a point clearly, to understand a graph or data, or, at a minimum, to work with finances. Even family life requires us to manage our finances.

Mr Hacker’s book, The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions, shows how mathematics, like working with polynomials or proving theorems, takes over during a college-preparatory course in high school, leaving students without skills that are much more important in students’ lives, like simple arithmetic and number sense.

I think when Ms Brownstein refers to “finances,” she’s talking more about basic arithmetic than she is about algebra. In that sense, I agree that some understanding of math is needed. When Mr Hacker talks about algebra and geometry, he’s referring to those long division of polynomial problems. This isn’t a skill most of us need in our daily lives after algebra class, but learning how to approach problems has a value all its own.

That’s why I agree with Ms Brownstein.

I especially liked her comment about persistence: “I also disagree with the logic that if people are failing algebra, then they shouldn’t take algebra. If people approach life that way, they will get nowhere.”

Please record your vote in the poll below.

The poll is closed. With 20 people responding in total, 80 percent answered the question, “How many high school students should be required to take algebra and geometry?” with “90 percent or more” and 20 percent answered it with “20 percent or fewer.”

UPDATE March 17: Education Week printed a phone interview with Mr Hacker: “Right now, there are about 4 million 14-year-olds and every single one has to be taking a class in algebra. I regard it as something entrenched and irrational. So you can ask a simple three-letter question: Why? Let’s ask the people who impose this regimen to defend it,” he was quoted as saying.
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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