teaching algebra

English: Square root of x formula. Symbol of m...
English: Square root of x formula. Symbol of mathematics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Is Algebra Necessary? - NYTimes.com:   "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."
This NYT op ed on doing away with algebra in schools sparked a lot of debate. I think he has a strong point about math for citizens. But aside from feelings about algebra itself, wanting every human being to have the same cognitive skills is a problematic goal in many ways. Is it brainwashing and illegitimate control? Are we building a monoculture? Are human beings blank slates or do they possess gifts and abilities out of the box? Is it true that most math majors work for National Security? Our current public education system was built before the knowledge explosion of the 20th century: is this 19th century model really what we have to use?

Linked below are two previous posts on math, one presents a lecture on this topic at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and the second post discusses math textbooks. I've done a brief transcription of key concepts for the first lecture which discusses the math requirements in the US and their impact on drop outs and completion rates.

Few discuss the wisdom of extensive, top-down requirements that fill the entire 12 years of schooling and do not allow for any choice or control by the learner. In our local high school, kids get one elective, a choice among two defined things. That's it for the whole 12 years. I think we should move to far greater choice and control by every learner at every school. It might not ensure that everyone learned algebra but a great many still would choose to do that. We actually do not have many getting algebra now anyway if you read the numbers in these links. I suspect the most popular path ahead will be this one along with MOOCs that may breakthrough the poor quality of math teaching:
Algebra Can Be Taught as Basic Software Programming | Education News: "But my now-grown sons, two of whom became software developers, have been arguing since high school that learning computer software programming is essentially learning algebra, only infinitely more fun, interesting, and useful." 
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