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The tragedy of algebra - millions of lost hours

From the NY Times opinion pages:

Of course, people should learn basic numerical skills: decimals, ratios and estimating, sharpened by a good grounding in arithmetic. But a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above. And if there is a shortage of STEM graduates, an equally crucial issue is how many available positions there are for men and women with these skills. A January 2012 analysis from the Georgetown center found 7.5 percent unemployment for engineering graduates and 8.2 percent among computer scientists. -  Andrew Hacker an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, and  co-author of “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It.” (formatting mine.)

My son struggled with required math classes in both high school and college, as did I. And suspect both of us are somewhere within one standard deviation of a normal IQ. Politically-driven, nonsensical math requirements probably make me angrier than almost anything else in education right now. To think of the millions of lost classroom hours spent teaching useless skills that actually turn kids off education should make every educator angry - including math teachers.

Others have questioned the need for advanced math classes as well. In his February 7, 2011 post Educating B Students, Scott (Dilbert) Adams wrote:

I understand why top students - the A+ types - learn physics and calculus. I get why they study classic literature and the details of history. The kids in this brainy group are the future professors, scientists, and engineers who will propel civilization forward.

But why do we make the B students sit through these same classes? That's like trying to teach a walrus to tap dance. It's a complete waste of time and money. And most students fall into that middle category. I assume this ridiculous educational system is a legacy from a day when generic mental training was good enough for just about any job. 

In our modern world, would it make more sense to teach B students something useful, such as entrepreneurship? 

My response to that post, "If they let me design the math curriculum", still works for me, perhaps even more so given the NY Times editorial:

I've talked to a number of adults who, like me, are fairly well convinced that they could not graduate from high school today given the "rigorous" math curriculum requirement. And I am sure the majority of the legislators and business leaders who think four years of math is essential for every student couldn't either.

But as I think about it, four year of math is a great idea - we just need to start teaching the right kind of math - consumer math. 

In my school days, "consumer math," was a euphemism for dummy math. You can't hack algebra or trig, Consumer Math class is for you. Ironically, today's graduate needs "consumer math" a heck of a lot more than trigonometry. In such a course I would include:

  • Calculating interest rates on credit cards and other consumer loans.
  • How to do your own income tax returns - state and federal.
  • Determining both the rate of return and maintenance cost on mutual funds and other investments.
  • Reading and interpreting statistics in the media.
  • How to spot a Ponzi scheme (or how to run one).
  • Applied statistics: chance of wining the lottery, odds of paying higher taxes because you make over $250,000, likelihood of inheriting a large sum of money when none of your relatives is rich, etc..
  • Creating a personal budget and retirement plan.
  • Understanding the current federal, state and local tax codes and determining the percentage of total income paid by different levels of income earners.
  • Doing cost/benefit comparisons of medical, life, health, car, and home insurance policies.
  • Converting measurements from metric to English - applied especially to medications.
  • The fundamentals of entrepreneurship (as Adams suggests above.)
  • And just a dose of bullshit literacy for good measure.

Oh, speaking of math skills, here is a sure fire way of knowing one has slipped into geezerdom. At the used book store recently, I gave the clerk a 20 dollar bill and a one dollar bill to pay for my $5.35 purchase. (Have you noticed that older used books are now selling for more than their original cover price?) Anyway, the clerk said she would have to just make change from the $20 since dealing with two bills was too complicated. She did relent after she checked (on a calculator) that my mentally calculated estimate of $15.65 in change was indeed accurate.

My immediate reaction: "Why aren't today's schools teaching kids to make change?"  50% of all criticisms leveled at schools would be eliminated if we simply taught kids how make change - every year, right through college. Spoken like a true geezer, huh?

OK, folks, when will educators find the courage to wrest control of curriculum out of the hands of the politicians and departments of education and put it back where it belongs - in individual schools? Complaining in the teachers' lounge and on echo chamber blogs isn't helping. Attending any political forums this fall to inform the candidates? Practicing willful, purposeful subversion? What?

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Reader Comments (10)

I think you're right, at least with a desperate need for consumer economics/math, but the tides are in the opposite direction. Education seems to be getting weirder and weirder. My school is eliminating consumer math as a math class, not sure where they are going to fit the consumer economics that they are starting to realize is needed.

July 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenni

The focus on Algebra makes me wonder how many entry-level workers will need to be able to sing, or paint, or sculpt, or play a musical instrument, or be physically fit, or actually need anything they might encounter in secondary school. Is the point of school just to provide utilitarian job related skills, or to provide opportunities for students to find something that they can be passionate about? Algebra is a waste of time? How about or sciences or history. I can't even think of any entry-level jobs that require knowing the history of this country. Extra curricular activities like sports are also a waste of time if all we are trying to do is lock generations of kids into entry-level choices. Yes, everyone should take Algebra, and Chemistry, and Biology, and Poetry, and Philosophy, and, and, and.

July 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

Totally agree! I'm a high school library/media specialist and I'm amazed at the number of students who take all of the required math but are at a loss when it comes to estimating, counting change and figuring out much those student loans will really cost them. We have a lack of common sense when it comes to math education. Also, I don't think the average kid needs to read Beowulf or Chaucer's Tales. Rather than instilling a love of reading, these books kill it.

July 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFaye Friesen

This was another viewpoint posted on Scholastic's Practical Leadership Page by Suzanne Tingley:

July 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarole

Hi Matthew,

Your point is well-taken. I don't question the value of algebra for those passionate about it. I just don't know if should be a required course for every student. Singing, painting, etc. are all great electives. Perhaps all of hs should be elective allowing students to pursue individual interests? Oh, and while I love history personally, I don't know it's genuine value. A good civics class ought to be required as should good practical math classes.

I appreciate your views!


Hi Mary,

No Beowulf? What a heretic you are!

I agree. I'd like a class composed of reading and analyzing editorials and blogs. I will grudgingly admit that is the one thing about Common Core I like - the emphasis on nonfiction.

Thanks for the POV,



Very thoughtful commentary by Tingley. Thanks for the link. Maybe it is not algebra per se, but how we teach it?


August 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Long, LONG ago I was in 9th grade. We attended school for 180 days. I was required to take Algebra 1. Let's just say this was agonizing for me, Mr. Anderson, and my poor father. Mr. Anderson stayed after school tutoring me EVERYDAY for 180 days, desperately trying to help me understand the day's lesson (or even the days before). Almost every night my dad would try to help me understand the homework. He wasn't nearly as patient as Mr. Anderson. My dad was responsible for billions of dollars on a project for Boeing. He couldn't understand his daughter's total lack of mathematical intelligence. Today I am a librarian who is responsible for a budget and the upkeep of the library collection and equipment. Oh if I had a class on spreadsheets (even the old fashion ones on paper), budgeting, purchase orders, inventory, etc. How to tell a principal what percentage of the collection had been lost, weeded, or damaged would have been handy. I know how to do it now. My dad is either smiling as he looks down on me from heaven or is laughing hysterically.

August 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGwen Martin

Hi Gwen,

Thanks for your reflection. Why do we all need to be mathematically "talented"? Seems a small subset of skills, all in all. Basic arithmetic, used well, is good enough for 95% of us!

I LOVE spreadsheets. They took out all the pain and left all the fun in math for me.


August 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I don't neccesarily think that students who don't excel in Algebra should be considered inferior C and B students. Academia places a much greater emphasis on math and science than the rest of society does. Most people have passions or school subjects that they excel in. Providing a student with a poor aptitude for algebra a solid understanding of basic math (Interest rates, tax returns, means, averages, weights and measures etc) and then allowing them to pursue their passions in areas that they excel in seems like a better way for kids to reach their potential rather than forcing them to waste their time and talents trying to pass courses containg fields of study that they will never grasp or be able to use.

January 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim

I just found this article buried in my Instapaper app. I began to think about whether the idea of adding new classes (whether electives or core classes) depends upon how much math and science you include in that new class curriculum. So if a teacher wanted to create a Science of Cooking class, how much of the class would "have to be" math?

October 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

HI Kenn,

If you are a STEM school, I suppose making sure your class in some way addresses those specific subjects is important.

On re-reading this, I guess my rant is less about math per se as it is about ignoring much needed practical skills - in any subject.

And yet, I value kids having a broad understanding of history and literature and other impractical stuff too.


October 23, 2017 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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