The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

More Reasons Why Algebra Should Not be Required

As you can see at the bottom of Monday’s post, it received three positive comments.  One of them, contributed by Doug Garnett, included a reference to an article on the same topic as the one I reported on: “Is Algebra Necessary?” by Andrew Hacker, published in “The New York Times”in 2012.  Because that article was stronger and better written than the one I referred to,   I will post some quotes from it here that may send you back to the original so you can read everything Hacker has to say.

I want to end on a positive note. Mathematics, both pure and applied, is integral to our civilization, whether the realm is aesthetic or electronic. But for most adults, it is more feared or revered than understood. It’s clear that requiring algebra for everyone has not increased our appreciation of a calling someone once called “the poetry of the universe.” (How many college graduates remember what Fermat’s dilemma was all about?)

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.

Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

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What if Algebra is Not Your Friend?

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.


Studying Civics Could Make Americans Smarter

 In light of the fact that Independence Day was celebrated earlier this week I am writing today about the importance of teaching civics to all students. In addition to my own views I will refer to the articles that inspired me to write: Civic knowledge and Engagement Are Critical to Our Republic” published in the “Seattle Times”, and Civics Education, America’s Great Equalizer, Can Make Us Whole Again” published in “The Hill”. Both articles were written by George R. Nethercutt Jr, who is a former U.S. Representative from the state of Washington, serving from 1995 to 2005.

 Not long ago I read two articles about the need for teaching civics in our public schools. According to George Nethercutt, Jr., the author of both, civics has not been taught at most schools around the country for more than fifty years. As a result, he contends that most Americans know little about the events and people who created this country and their most significant contributions. They know even less about examples of American foolishness and failure.

Nethercutt believes that the teaching of civics should be revived in elementary and high schools. In fact, he would like to see “ a congressional resolution” passed calling for civics education in all schools. He would also like to see more adults participating in political organizations or public service. He asserts that “ research has confirmed that civil learning leads to better citizenship in the form of increased volunteerism, neighbors working together to solve problems, higher voter turnout—particularly among young voters—and the development of a greater sense of national pride.”

What I remember from my own schooling was studying American history, but not civics. Over the grades from elementary school though high school, we learned about the most outstanding of our past presidents and other leaders, the most significant wars, and the expansion and settling of the West. Although I remember studying the Declaration of Independence, I have no memory of reading the U.S. Constitution, much less discussing it. Our classes taught us to remember important names and events, but did not to help us to deal with the complicated situations occurring in government all the time.

While I’m not sure that civics teaching would solve all the problems that Nethercutt sees, I think it would make more Americans aware of both the good and bad decisions made by lawmakers and their consequences. It might also move more people to get involved with political and social organizations, and stir them to action when support or opposition to political actions was needed. Above all, knowing more about the ways our country operates and the possible results, might cause citizens to think more carefully about the candidates for public offices, and maybe every one would take the trouble to vote.






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An Audacious Proposal For Our Schools

In high school I took two years of Spanish and later, at college, two years more. I found that learning that language was easy and enjoyable. Just a few years after I graduated and became a teacher, my husband was offered a job in Puerto Rico, and we went there to live. Once there, I was offered a job teaching English in a public high school and I accepted. For a year I worked at that school, teaching English but also speaking a lot of Spanish in order to communicate with my students and other teachers. When we returned to this country two years later my Spanish was strong, and I continued to have some opportunities to use it when we visited other countries.

A few years later we began to take vacations in Mexico, and I still found it easy to talk with native speakers. As time passed, however, I rarely had the opportunity to use my second language with other people.  Still, at home by myself I would often sing  Spanish songs and recite a couple of poems in that language. Now, unfortunately, I have difficulty communicating with the two Hispanic women who clean my house once a week.

Although I don’t think I’m senile quite yet, I am living the well-known saying: “If you don’t use it, you lose it”. And that also means I’ve lost many other skills I once had.  For instance, I earned a masters degree in English and did my doctoral research in linguistics.  But by now I have forgotten the content of many of the books and poems I once loved and can no longer identify the parts of a sentence.

My purpose in recounting all this personal history was not to gain your sympathy, but to explain why I believe that the ordinary high school curriculum should be trimmed down and its requirements put more in line with the interests, abilities, and opportunities of individual students.

Much of what is now being taught might be just the thing for some students but a waste of time and effort for others—even those who earn high grades. What I’d like to see is a dramatic re-design of middle schools and high schools that would better serve all students over the long haul.

One possibility would be to change the structure of middle schools that would give students a taste of the range of future possibilities for young people, and enable them to discover their own specific needs, strengths, and interests so they can choose what is best for them to study in high school, and, perhaps, at college, too.

To be specific, I would require only math and English classes for everyone in grades 6,7, and 8, while introducing them to the range of areas for future study and possible careers through month-long introductory classes. The type of classes I’m proposing would not focus on skills and information, but instead introduce the scope of various professional fields so that students could figure out which ones were most appealing and best fit them. Based on those introductory experiences, students would select their high school classes and avoid others in the areas that did not fit them at all.  Also, if they changed their minds later, they could choose different classes.

Incidentally, I would not encourage any student right now to major in a foreign language. Jobs in that area are not as available as sometimes advertised because most people educated in foreign countries learn English, and that is the business language of today. Although taking Chinese may seem like fun, in the end American students would not use it and would most certainly “lose it.”



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