It’s no secret that algebra is the bane of many students’ lives. Failure rates for high schoolers across US states reach as high as 82%, and even among students who elect to take the subject, failure rates of 50% are common. Algebra – along with other advanced math subjects – is frequently listed as one of the most hated school subjects and has been linked to anxiety and depression.
Recently there has been intense debate over the necessity of advanced mathematics in schools. Though the issue has experienced a resurgence in the past few years – with articles on the topic published in major papers like the New York Times and Washington Post, and a new book questioning the value of teaching advanced math to unwilling students – it is all part of a discussion about American math education that is nearly a century old.
“Students, in general, do not need algebra, geometry or trigonometry,” wrote University of Chicago professor John Franklin Bobbitt in 1922. He was not alone in this school of thought; Chicago in the 1920s saw a vociferous debate on the issue, with some notable educators decrying advanced math as having little bearing on the realities of life while others flocked to its defense.
Slowly but surely, over the course of the 20th century, the proponents of compulsory advanced math had their victory. In 1950 just 25% of American high school students studied algebra. Just over a decade later, in the 1960s, the figure had risen to about 65 percent, partly in response to the fabled mathematical abilities of Russian youth during the Cold War. Now advanced math is an essential part of American high school education and a prerequisite for many college courses.
This state of affairs is damaging to education, writes The Math Myth author Andrew Hacker. In a 2012 New York Times op-ed he argues the difficulty of the compulsory math taught in high school acts as an academic deterrent, turning students off not just math but education in general. And by instituting blanket math requirements for entry to any course, colleges dissuade potential students of even liberal arts subjects like art or history – thereby narrowing the entire educational field.
“Students who have completed Algebra II in high school are twice as likely to earn a degree as those that don’t,” said US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2011. But is that because Algebra II arms students with the necessary skills to complete college? Or because advanced math effectively serves a gatekeeper to further study, preventing many who do poorly at it – and won’t need it – from attending college at all?
None of those arguing against the compulsory nature of advanced math believe the subject is useless – just that it useful to a limited group of people. According to a report by the Georgetown Center for Education and Workplace, by 2018 only 5% of occupations will be in Scientific, Technical, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields – those most likely to require advanced math in the workplace.
Then do we remove math altogether? No, argues Andrew Hacker; math just needs to be redesigned, made more relevant for students in a variety of fields and treated more like a liberal art – tying it in with other subjects like music, history or language. Some organizations – such as the Carnegie Foundation – now hold courses for the real-world application of numbers in fields useful to the average citizen, such as health, civics and finance.
Here, Hacker and his colleagues posit is where the future of math education should lie: not in the distant wilderness of complex theories and abstractions, but at the busy intersection of mathematics and the real world.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.