Math: Do We Really Need It?, Part I

By Kate Stoltzfus — March 11, 2016 2 min read
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When political science professor Andrew Hacker first proposed that algebra wasn’t necessary in 2012, the education world was quick to respond. His controversial opinion piece in The New York Times sparked a debate, drawing hundreds of comments from educators, parents, and former students.

In the recently published The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions (The New Press, March 2016), Hacker, a professor emeritus who teaches at Queens College, City University of New York, expands on his argument to eliminate high-level math requirements for all students and rethink our fundamental approach to teaching and learning the subject. By imposing this curriculum—Algebra 2, geometry, trigonometry and calculus, as well as its testing—upon everyone, he asks, do we take away from developing students’ other talents?

Those who agree with Hacker share trials of flunked math courses and testify that higher-level math was not critical to every career’s success. Other readers—past and present—think Hacker has the wrong approach. Even if students won’t use math directly in careers, the subject is a crucial basis for learning. Back in 2012, psychology professor Daniel Willingham argued that to stop requiring math might increase the achievement gap for low-income students.

While Hacker is quick to assert the importance of mathematics (and teaching algebra), requiring advanced math at a standardized level in order for students to graduate high school sets them up to fail. He views it as the main academic reason many students fail a class or drop out of high school. There are few jobs, he argues, that use the concepts of advanced math on a regular basis. The Math Myth also questions the push for STEM skills and the Common Core State Standards for its “one-size-fits-all” approach. Kevin Devlin, executive director of Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute at Stanford University recently critiqued Hacker’s claims, saying he misunderstands the common core.

Hacker advocates instead for numeracy—an advanced arithmetic curriculum with an emphasis on real-life situations. He argues that it prepares students to become adept with daily number use. To practice what he preaches, Hacker started a Numeracy 101 course at Queens College in 2013, teaching quantitative reasoning, statistics, and advanced arithmetic. The Math Myth‘s final chapter includes samples of such problems.

It cannot be disputed that math is challenging for many learners, and that the failure rates for the subject are high. (In one of the more extreme examples, 57 percent of students in Montgomery County, Md., failed Algebra 2 in 2013.) As Slate writer Dana Goldstein asserts, the book is a comforting one for those who struggled with math. Goldstein agrees that it’s a good idea “to give students multiple math pathways toward high school and college graduation—some less challenging than others.”

Recently, BookMarks caught up with Hacker by phone to talk to him about why he wants to change math instruction. Look for the interview on Monday.

Photo credit: The New Press

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.