The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What if Algebra is Not Your Friend?

on July 10, 2017

Last week I stumbled upon an article in the Los Angeles Times, by Rosanna Xia and Teresa Watanabe that I see as the beginning of reasonable thinking in higher education. It was about requiring Intermediate Algebra for all students who intend to go on to college. Before reading the article, I challenge all college graduates to work on the problem presented at the beginning of the article, and if they solve it, to let me know.


 Currently, educators in California are debating what to do about intermediate algebra, now not required in high schools, but still a pre-requisite for entrance to a four-year college. The problem is that 3 out of 4 community college students don’t pass the exam that determines their competence in algebra and thus must take 1, 2, or even 3 courses in remedial math in order to move on to the next level in their program. Many of them feel that being expected to pass a higher math course than what was required in high school is unreasonable and irrelevant to their college and career interests, so they drop out of community college without receiving an associate degree.

Among university professors there is much disagreement about what should be required. Some think that students should be able to substitute other courses such as computer science or data analysis for intermediate algebra, if their intended university major is not in any type of science. One significant university, Cal State, appears open to the idea of replacing the algebra requirement with other high quality courses that are more compatible with students’ career aims. But others still feel that the substitute courses are not rigorous enough and that intermediate algebra is essential for moving on into “higher paying science, engineering, and math careers.”

A few schools, such as Pierce College and College of the Canyons have moved on to using courses in statistics and data analysis instead of requiring more algebra. They report that students find those courses”more engaging—and more immediately useful in following political polls, analyzing sports data or understanding research methodology.”

As someone who completed the three required math courses in high school and another one* in college, but did not go on to any science or math career, I side with Cal State and the other two colleges. I never found that I needed algebra in my career or my private life, and I soon forgot how to use it. Consequently, I feel strongly that only one basic course should be required in high school and for college acceptance, in order to give those students who love math and want to make it part of their lives the opportunity to reach that goal.

*I can’t remember the name of the college course or what it involved.

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3 responses to “What if Algebra is Not Your Friend?

  1. Doug Garnett says:

    Absolutely agree, Joanne. And…I come from the other extreme with an MS-Applied Math from UC San Diego, a BA from Colorado, and about 10 years working in the engineering fields that use a lot of math.

    It’s important within those fields. But I’ve been impressed with Andrew Hacker’s work and idea that requiring universal schooling in “Adult Arithmetic” is far, far, far more important in both education and life.

    I was particularly impressed that his experience in this recommended math for life – practical & attainable for all students – could often be quite hard for engineering students. In my own work, I find having a “sense” for numbers is far more important than algebra.

    That said, I don’t know the details of Hacker’s Adult Arithmetic. The last thing we need are unnecessary math requirements used to keep students out of college or preventing degrees. I read one story of a guy who had returned to school and was fully educated to teach art…but couldn’t pass the math requirement (not needed for his area of study) and that a state college in NY had rejected his attempt to get a degree. Sad.

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  2. I agree completely. Rigor for rigor’s sake is foolish. The focus should be what is useful in everyday life and career tracks. I’m not sure why some don’t see it that way. My high school (grades 7-12) required 3 years of Latin, then either one more year of Latin or 2 years of a different foreign language. Latin was almost totally useless for me. The other language- Spanish- has proven highly useful.

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  3. Don Bellairs says:

    Welcome back.

    In this instance, I agree with most of what you say…but I believe that information technologies permit us to guide students to learn multiple disciplines at their own rates. The days of an algebra teacher standing at the front of a room of thirty-five kids for 9 months should be appearing in the rear-view mirror soon. If we need to mandate anything, it is remediation for those students who can’t grasp the functions of math that condition and stimulate the brain and help develop critical thinking skills (like evaluation, assessment, and providing evidence for a position or belief). Students who are proficient in those skills should work independently and in small groups to master algebra, geometry and similar traditional math offerings while also learning coding, data analysis and statistics. Our schools need to be more stream-lined, more DIY, and more results-oriented. Less Prom and Friday night games. Those belongs in the recreation domain–not the education world.

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