Radical Equations and related matters

A couple of years ago I got around to re-reading Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project, by civil-rights activist/math teacher Robert Moses. Just now I realized an interesting resonance with the post I wrote last week about Algebra II. Before I describe the connection, let me tell you about Radical Equations:

The premise of this 2001 book is that algebra has become a civil right. In particular, students who do not learn algebra cannot have the opportunity to become first-class citizens of our democracy. A veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, Bob Moses  is best known (in certain circles) as the founder and president of The Algebra Project, whose motto is “Math literacy is the key to 21st century citizenship.” Eleven years ago the most important foundation of math literacy was Algebra I, hence the titles of the project and the book.

But things have changed…somewhat. One of the few positive changes to come about as a result of No Child Left Behind and the push for standardized high-stakes testing such as MCAS is that everyone is now expected to take a minimum of two years of algebra and one of geometry. Of course it’s not quite true that everyone does this — in particular it’s not true that everyone passes two years of algebra and one of geometry nor that everyone learns the material of two years of algebra and one of geometry — but it’s still the expectation, and that’s progress. In my post  last week about Algebra II, I wrote a bit about teachers who don’t believe that everyone can meet this expectation, but I didn’t get to the question of whether everyone should meet this expectation. Why should everyone take Algebra II? The basic answer is the one found in Radical Equations: it’s a necessary prerequisite if you’re going to have the opportunity to be a first-class citizen. It’s not that you’re necessarily ever going to use Algebra II in your work life — it’s just that doors are closed to you if you don’t have that opportunity. Some people, such as Rick Santorum, think that it’s elitist to expect everyone to go beyond secondary education, and indeed not everyone needs to go to college, but closing the door to some sort of further education just widens the gap between groups of people.

Finally, we can take another step back and look at the even bigger picture. We’ve talked about how to give kids the opportunity of learning two years of algebra, and we’ve talked about why that’s a necessary opportunity, but we haven’t talked about whether it should be the gateway to first-class citizenship. There has been a lot of push in the last couple of years for the idea that statistics, not algebra, should serve that purpose. Perhaps it should. But that’s a topic for another post.

Categories: Books, Life, Math, Teaching & Learning