Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What need of math?

There's a raging argument going on over at Joanne Jacobs, a blog dedicated to education topics. The reason for the outcry? Richard Cohen's article about the California requirement for graduation - Algebra I:
I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time -- the only proof I've ever seen of divine intervention -- somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again. I let others go on to intermediate algebra and trigonometry while I busied myself learning how to type. In due course, this came to be the way I made my living. Typing: Best class I ever took.

Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know -- never mind want to know -- how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later -- or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note -- or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not.
Wrong-o, Cohen.

Algebra is extremely useful. It opens up the world of symbolic logic, and is the gateway to reaching the level of what is called in the educational world, HOTS - Higher Order Thinking Skills.

Who started this uproar?
Gabriela Ocampo.

Last year, she dropped out of the 12th grade at Birmingham High School in Los Angeles after failing algebra six times in six semesters, trying it a seventh time and finally just despairing over ever getting it. So, according to the Los Angeles Times, she "gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School."
Well, I have a few questions.

  • Why was Gabriela still struggling with Algebra I - a freshman subject - as a senior? Does that mean that she never took any other high school math? For, that's what the pre-Algebra courses are - NOT high school math.
  • How were her OTHER grades? Was she a student that just did the minimum? A "just gimme a D" student? Could she, in fact, write a coherent sentence?
  • What was her high school doing about her problem? Was she given access to tutoring? How could the guidance department let her get that far without insisting she pass such a basic subject?
  • Was she working as well as attending school? I know many teens do it, but if the kid is struggling with the classes, dump the job.
  • Is Richard Cohen seriously suggesting that some people just can't "do math". Horse**t! It may take a special genius to invent the math, but ANY student who seriously applies themselves will be able to learn basic Algebra, Trig, and Geometry. They just have to suck it up and spend the time.
Number 2 Pencil's Kimberly Swygert also weighs in:
Let me just add my $.02. It should be a criminal offense for a journalist to address this issue (on any school subject) and fail to ask: "Were her teachers any good? Did they offer any tutoring? When she failed once, did they try something different the second time? And how many other students are this frustrated as well? How many of them all have the same teacher?" To add to this lack of any sort of journalistic investigation the insistence that the problem is the math, because it's just a bad old hard subject that adults almost never use in real life, is idiotic as well.


Stephen said...

I wrote this on my blog about the same article. I argue that there are more than two problems. It can be the student, the teacher, but also the method, and all at once.

In any case Cohen is wrong. The diploma has to mean something.

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