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School & District Management Opinion

Is it Really All in the Numbers?

By Susan Graham — April 09, 2011 2 min read
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I’m reading from The Washington Post

Of all of the classes offered in high school, Algebra II is the leading predictor of college and work success, according to research that has launched a growing national movement to require it of graduates. The study showed that of those who held top-tier jobs, 84 percent had taken Algebra II or a higher class as their last high school math course. Only 50 percent of employees in the bottom tier had taken Algebra II.

Whoa! If we are talking research, perhaps we should begin by defining some terms. What constitutes college and work success? Is college success measured in undergraduate degree completion, GPA upon graduation, completion of advanced degrees, pledging a fraternity that provides a great network, or meeting your future spouse? And what are the criteria for work success? I presume a “top-tier” job? Does this mean high income, good benefits, job security, prestige, great working conditions, or contribution to society? Oh, never mind. Define success for yourself and move on.

But now let’s see, this says Algebra II the predictor. Humm, people are successful in college and work because they take Algebra II? So if you take Algebra II in high school, you’ll graduate from college and get a well paying job and if you don’t take Algebra II you’re probably destined to be a loser. Are you sure that’s a predictor or a indicator or just a correlation? And what makes the correlation became causal?

Because if correlations are predictors then

Car ownership is a predictor for committing a traffic or parking violation, the most common violations of the law. Therefore by reducing car ownership we can reduce crime in America.

Correlation is not causation. Perhaps we should worry a little less about Algebra II and a little more about Statistics and Logic. But it wasn’t the “Raise the standards and we’ll fix the problem” perspective of Achieve that really fascinated me. It was the 468 comments the article gleaned because they show so much about the mindsets that drive the education discussion.

The Washington Post article quoted Tiffany Woodle, a Conway High School student and an aspiring beauty salon owner who said

All those numbers and letters, it's like another language, like hieroglyphics. It obviously says something. I'm just not sure what, sometimes.

Well, Tiffany, apparently you are not alone. Based on the comments posted to this article, your enrollment in Algebra II speaks volumes to a lot of people. The thing is, that it seems there’s a lot of loose translation in what taking Algebra II really does mean. There is considerable debate as to the importance of Algebra II among Post readers who say

I didn't know there were any high schools in this country that didn't require algebra II in order to graduate. You probably won't use Algebra II in real life. I use the principles taught in Algebra II most every day. If you avoid Algebra II, then you'll go through life as a math illiterate (at least compared to the rest of the world). From an economic perspective, that's not a good gamble. Every student should be forced to take Algebra II. Higher math classes should be offered as electives. Algebra II is the #1 deterministic factor on how successful someone will be in life. Your using the brain structures you build to do math to make smart decisions. Donkey Dust!\I had 700 math boards and Algebra 2 was very hard and a waste of time. When I state that Americans Read, Write and Comprehend at an 8th Grade Level, I wasn't just "venting", I'm serious, and I'm afraid! It is already over for this country now. The corpse just has not noticed it is dead.

You see, Tiffany, if you don’t do well in Algebra II, you’re going to bring the United States of American to it’s knees because those Post readers are telling us

In most developed nations math is taught to everybody up to elementary calculus an basic probability before high school graduation. I bet the Chinese are debating whether or not their children should have Algebra II by the time they get to middle school. The Germans are starting to outdo us Americans Europeans actually think Americans are stupid. Most ditch diggers and housemaids in Europe understand advanced math as a matter of normal comprehension. Algebra is an Arabic term. If we teach "the method" we will become an Islamic Caliphate headed by a Muslim-Kenyan-socialist. If more of the US population had studied Algebra II they probably wouldn't have accepted the incomplete and illogical explanations of what occurred on 9/11.

Yes, Tiffany, the fate of our nation is dependent on your performance in Algebra II because

If people understood math there wouldn't be so many Republicans. In reality the Democrats have a serious problem with math and reading. This is a perfect example of how politics is corrupting our education system. People who have ZERO background in education are making education policy so they can score points with their constituents and angry parents

And why shouldn’t constituents and parents be angry, Tiffany? Clearly,

Kids have it too easy - I d require at least Calc I. Fat chance kids who can't seem to learn to read and write no matter how much effort/money is thrown at the effort to teach them are going to pickup on algebra ll. American children cannot get any dummer than they already are. Let them sit and watch TV and have the rest of the world pass them by, which most of them already have. The problem, as I see it, is kids in the US want to be pop stars and actors and the kids in India want to be engineers.

Of course, it’s not entirely the fault of you and your peers, Tiffany. Your teachers are your accomplices

I'm sure the teachers' unions would fight an algebra 2 graduation requirement in many states. After all, they fight every genuine reform in education. Most public school systems do not want to actually teach, therefore they drop the hard classes and make it an elective. It's about hitting the numbers so that the Teachers Unions can keep their pay grades and even get raises. It's not about education anymore.

Oh Tiffany, they’re right. Too often the education conversation is not about education any more. I’m with you when you said “It obviously says something. I’m just not sure what, sometimes.”

Well, don’t lose too much sleep over Algebra II, Tiffany. The future of the world really doesn’t hinge on your Algebra II exam. I hope you won’t give up, and that you’ll work hard at get through Algebra II because you never know when you will use it, but even if you don’t, you follow your dreams, honey. I bet you’ll do well in beauty school and develop a full book of clients. Maybe you will own that salon of your own someday. And who knows, maybe someday a plane will wait on a runway for you to come cut the hair of the President of the United States, Stranger things have happened!

Fairytales can come true, it can happen to you.
But I doubt they’ll come true just because of Algebra II.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.