School & District Management Opinion

Is Algebra Unnecessary? Leading a Local Decision

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 25, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

You don’t need to be a mathematician to examine if algebra is important. School leaders come from a variety of the disciplines taught in classrooms. We, ourselves, are from the social studies and special education backgrounds in which we began as teachers. But it doesn’t take an expert in mathematics to understand the educational value of algebra in high school. And it doesn’t take an expert in policy to understand that the arguments for eliminating algebra as a required subject is an effort to remove a graduation obstacle. An article in Phys.org, Is Algebra an Unnecessary Stumbling Block in US Schools? reported:

“One out of 5 young Americans does not graduate from high school. This is one of the worst records in the developed world. Why? The chief academic reason is they failed ninth-grade algebra,” said political scientist Andrew Hacker, author of “The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions.”

Hacker, a professor emeritus at Queens College, argues that, at most, only 5 percent of jobs make use of algebra and other advanced math courses. He favors a curriculum that focuses more on statistics and basic numbers sense and less on (y - 3)2 = 4y - 12.

This pops out to us since we have just written our last two posts about college and career readiness. In an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegle, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system said:

...this is a civil rights issue, but this is also something that plagues all Americans -- particularly low-income Americans. If you think about all the underemployed or unemployed Americans in this country who cannot connect to a job in this economy -- which is unforgiving of those students who don’t have a credential -- the biggest barrier for them is this algebra requirement. It’s what has kept them from achieving a credential.

Will Leaders Allow the Pendulum to Swing?

We are familiar with the pendulum that swings at schools. Yes, ‘at’ schools. If you Google ‘eliminating Algebra as a requirement 2017' the first posts that appear are from California where this seems to be well on the way to becoming a reality. In 2012 New York Times published an article by Andrew Hacker revealing this was an issue he wanted addressed. He wrote:

The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

We cannot address the truth about the value of what students can learn by mastering algebra, but we certainly would like to hear from those in and outside of our schools on this issue.

Algebra: Tradition or Value?

If we are maintaining algebra courses for the sake of tradition or if algebra is the foundation of deductive reasoning and problem solving is the debate school leaders can engage now. With teachers of mathematics at the table, leaders can begin by gathering a group of business leaders, higher education scholars, thought leaders and learning specialists with parents and students to share about algebra, its relevance and the research about its impact on graduation rates before policy makers put pen to paper. Developing a new or supporting the long held belief system about the value of algebra in developing young minds is a choice for now. If 2-year colleges drop the algebra requirement will K-12 schools drop it too? If chancellors and state boards of education change graduation requirements and eliminate algebra, what will your school community think? If the data is correct, graduation rates will go up but will students be prepared for continuing to be problem solvers and life long learners?

In the end

We are in the business of developing young thinkers and problem solvers, aren’t we? This is the first time in a long time when we can see a horizon issue clearly. It is part of the conversation and we can do something about it locally. Since we’ve been thinking about readiness, here is a new kind...readiness to lead the algebra decision. Yes, this is an unprecedented opportunity for school leaders to begin investigating the value of a course that folks have talked about eliminating for some time now.

Consider these steps/questions:

  1. Are you prepared to bring your community along with informed assurance around the issue?
  2. If you decide to lead your district in a local decision to maintain your algebra requirement, are you prepared to bring your board of education and the community along with informed assurance that it is the best idea?
  3. What will happen if algebra is removed from the graduation requirement?
  4. One thing we do know for sure is it will create a divide, a gap between the experiences and the foundational knowledge that high school graduates and 2-year college graduates have and their 4-year college peers. Will that gap matter or make a difference in the quality of their lives or the access they will have to careers that can support them?

We wonder if algebra is such a challenge because the K-12 vertical plan in preparation for that algebra class is in need of revisiting. We wonder if algebra is such a challenge because it needs to be taught differently beginning with the elementary years. We wonder if algebra is an important foundational course for thinking and problem solving. There is no way of knowing that without searching for the answers. Doing it now allows for time to gather people to the table: people with a variety of beliefs, backgrounds, and careers. So, here is question 5 ...or is it question 1...

When the new regulation comes, what will you be prepared to do?

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by: nexusplexus / 123RF Stock Photo

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.