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Hand holding chalk writing multiplication problems on a blackboard

In the book Radical Equations, the legendary Robert Moses raises the math bar for the entire country, not just as a required subject, but as a social justice issue. Yet, according to him, innumeracy is as acceptable for society as illiteracy is unacceptable. He writes:

So algebra, once solely in place as the gatekeeper for higher math and the priesthood who gained access to it, now is the gatekeeper for citizenship; and people who don't have it are like the people who couldn't read and write in the industrial age. But because of how access to -- the learning -- algebra was organized in the industrial era, its place in society under the old jurisdiction, it has become not a barrier to college entrance, but a barrier to citizenship.

Algebra 1 as the End of the Road?

Even though Americans generally believe that math is the most important subject in school, students tend to drop out at higher rates when introduced to harder math and sciences. It seems the desire is there, but the skill and understanding are not. While there are a plethora of reasons for students to drop out, math always seems to come up as one of those levers with my former students.

In recent times, Andrew Hacker, Grant Wiggins, and Nicholson Baker have come for algebra's neck, stipulating that advanced algebra need not be required for students. The argument goes, "If the students weren't required to take anything above algebra, they wouldn't drop out as often." I agree to the extent that I would love for all my students to make it through high school without too much hassle. We have to reorganize the idea of completion and college readiness to assure that all students have an equitable chance at college or a career of their choosing.

But then it makes me wonder if we've stepped back far enough from these statements to understand the implications of limiting higher-order math. I wonder if these folks think similarly of English, and whether kids should have to read anything above Romeo and Juliet, and not Macbeth or Othello. Or the script to the Leonardo DiCaprio version of the movie. Or the manual to the DVD or mobile device that once played the movie.

As far as I can see, higher-level literacy isn't that necessary to the average citizen, either. Or do we not place the same restrictions on literacy as we do on math?

Math Access Is a Right

Those who get Algebra 2 will mostly likely be the ones perceived to be going to college, and that usually leads to discriminatory practices about who's going to get the "badge" for math completion. Those in the higher rungs of society will get Algebra 2 plus whatever other math will assure that they can apply to technical careers or other careers of their choosing. Those in the lower rungs (an increasing section, mind you) will be relegated to Algebra 1, and courses like "Using A Calculator To Plot A Graph" or "Statistics for Those Who Weren't Allowed to Take Algebra 2."

I’m adamant about access and the opportunity for all students to get access to the most information possible. Do I think math needs reform? Absolutely. Do I think eliminating Algebra 2 as a bridge toward that is the way to go? Absolutely not. This will take a concerted effort from educators (specifically K-12) to reconsider what needs to get taught across the board. I know the Common Core Learning Standards were supposed to do that, but I'm unconvinced as of now. Equity shows up here as the foundation for ensuring that all students have the opportunity to take math, and have multiple doors open to them because of the math they take.

If someone said, "Let's end compulsory higher-order math tomorrow," and the fallout happens across racial, gender, and class lines, then I could be convinced that this was a step toward reform. Yet, given the state of what our culture thinks about math right now, in all of our school systems, I can't risk the possibility that our lowest-income schools don't have access to the same knowledge that their higher-income-level counterparts do.

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Culturally Responsive Teaching

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mathteacherNE's picture

"... to assure that all students have an equitable chance at college or a career of their choosing."

This is an interesting statement. All kids (or people) for that matter, do not have an equitable chance at a career of their choosing. Nor should they. You have a chance at the careers that you've shown the capacity for and the willingness to reach. If you want to be a lawyer, you have to show that you are willing to work at reading and writing in a professional and serious way. If you want to be a doctor, you have to show the dedication and engagement in the sciences. You do not just get an equitable chance at being whatever you want just because you're alive.

mathhombre's picture

I'm less of a believer in innate ability differences than you sound like, but that's not the issue. I want your access to med school to not depend so much on where you live and how much your parent(s) earns. Right now, those matter more than measures of capacity.

Barbarawmadden's picture
I inspire students to love mathematics.

Two evenings a week, I teach mathematics to adult learners returning to school to earn high school diplomas. Without exception, they share that leaving school was a relationship issue. They felt as if no one cared about them or their learning.

In my opinion, it really is that simple. As teachers, we must take time to know our students, build relationships, and encourage them to their fullest potential.

With that said, relevance is a huge issue in today's curriculum. If a teacher does not understand the relevance of the subject matter, how in the world will a student understand.

Barbarawmadden's picture
I inspire students to love mathematics.

One of my adult students said to me that my mantra of "LET'S THINK LIKE A MATHEMATICIAN" was a game-changer for her. Agreed, that boosting math knowledge of teachers of younger students is crucial. Too often my students have memorized an algorithm but have no mathematical concept of what they are doing. IT MUST BE ABOUT WHY not just HOW!!

Maureen Devlin's picture
Maureen Devlin
Fifth Grade Teacher, NBCT

We can't give up on students' ability to rise to higher levels of math understanding and knowledge. We live in a mathematical world and most jobs and life events will require higher level mathematical thinking. There's lots we can do to boost math readiness at the early ages to develop a love of math as well as proficiency with the basics and mathematical thinking/problem solving.

First, we have to work with families and communities to dispel myths about "math smart" and the ability to learn math. Last year a young boy said to me, "People in my neighborhood can't learn math." Harmful myths about learning math are everywhere and these myths are harmful to developing a growth mindset with regard to learning math. Communities all over the world can promote a love of math in multiple ways if they put their imagination into the issue.

Next, tech savvy students who play games like Minecraft and code with SCRATCH and SCRATCH, Jr. are way ahead of their counterparts who don't engage in this kind of early learning. Too much technology used in schools is dull "workbook on a page" tech rather than inviting, engaging, and empowering games and other programs that excite students and develop natural math learning.

Further, the toys students play with matter too. Students who have early access to toys such as Legos, math board games, blocks, checkers, chess and other math related games and activities develop math skills more readily.

Also, we can't leave our active, bright, ready young learners behind by fostering lots of sit-at-your-desk-and-listen math lessons. Instead we have to make math come alive with exciting math learning events from preschool on--there's endless great ways to teach math and make it fun.

Finally, we have to boost the math knowledge of all pre-school and elementary school teachers (and perhaps parents who are interested too). Sometimes teachers at those levels don't have a rich understanding of math and serve to continue math myths and misunderstanding.

If we invigorate early math learning, this discussion might not even exist anymore.

Can you tell I'm passionate about the subject. Thanks for leading the conversation, Jose.

Maureen Devlin's picture
Maureen Devlin
Fifth Grade Teacher, NBCT

Hi Barbara, I'm going to start using that line, "Let's Think Like a Mathematician." Love it!

Peter Ford's picture

"Let's not throw back-shoulder fade passes because they're hard and not all quarterbacks can throw them."
"Let's not make pizza dough from scratch because it takes a long time for it to rise and tossing it is really hard."
If folks took this attitude, we wouldn't have the electronic media to share our thoughts like this so relatively cheaply.
Giving up on something because it's hard leads to folk who become complacent, soft, and left behind. The cynic in me says that's exactly what these folk want so as to limit competition, especially if that competition may be colored. We've had 50 years of Black and now Brown children not engaging Algebra 2 and beyond, being told by counselors 'you don't need to take all that math,' graduating from high school with barely Algebra 1 or Geometry, and look where that's got us.

NYCHISTORY10661453's picture

One of the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire cited through history points to how the citizenry became lazy and forgot the work ethic that helped to build the empire to its level of greatness.

I think as teachers whenever I hear of movements to remove curriculum, whether it be Algebra 2 or the rumor I hear of students only needing to pass one of the Social Studies in order to get a Regents, I wonder how this all relates with the dogmatic promotion of the Common Core as "raising standards." Couple that with the socio-economic reality of students who's background in education provides such roadblocks that by the time they enter high school it's no wonder why Math, English, Social Studies, Science, is so hard. They've already entered with a sense of "I can get by with that magical 65" that when they are faced with something moderately difficult, they shut down.

I'd write more but I have a class to teach. Thanks for the article, it was interesting to read.

David's picture

As a professional in a mathematical field, although not a secondary school teacher, I'm not aware of people being counseled away from continuing in mathematics if they are doing well in the courses they are taking. The math and science teachers I've known, almost all of them white, are some of the most generous people, just looking to share knowledge and bring a student along if only they find a student who might be able to handle it. Are you really saying that students do well in Algebra 1 and are steered away from Geometry, or they do well in Geometry and steered away from Algebra 2? By teachers, guidance counselors or any single employee of a school district? It would be hard for me to believe.

That said, I think the high school graduation criterion has always been Algebra 1. My kids' school district provides many ways to meet that, from whizzing through it in eighth grade, to taking it as an extended two year course later in high school. Further math is good for anyone, but some kids barely get through Algebra and it's a kindness to let them go and realize that with the best will in the world, their path in the foreseeable future will not be mainly mathematical.

All this will be moot if the kids can be made to learn the math, then everyone will be happy. That is the crux of the problem.

ARain's picture

I agree with Barbarawmadden. Teachers should get to know their students and their learning styles. My 5th grade math teacher didn't show me the connections between the skills I was learning. When I would ask questions about why something was done a certain way she didn't explain. This is when my struggles began and continued on into high school. In college, my math instructors and professors made sure we asked why and knew why. With their help and my hard work I was able to change all my negative experiences into a checklist of accomplishments in math.

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