The case against Algebra II?

The reason these kids are upset is that they are required to do something they can’t do. They are forced, repeatedly, to stare at hairy, square- rooted, polynomialed horseradish clumps of mute symbology that irritate them, that stop them in their tracks, that they can’t understand. The homework is unrelenting, the algorithms get longer and trickier, the quizzes keep coming. Sooner or later, many of them hit the wall. They fail the course and have to take it again.

Who is Nicholson Baker describing here? Algebra II students, that’s who — in the cover article of this month’s Harper’s Magazine, entitled “Wrong Answer: The Case against Algebra II.”

Before we discuss the pros and cons of the article — and there definitely are both pros and cons — I need to point out that Baker isn’t a math teacher. He isn’t a mathematician. He is basically a left-wing novelist. Now I have nothing against left-wingers — some of my best friends are left-wingers — but we do need to consider the source when we evaluate his comments. Part of his screed is really a complaint against textbooks, not against Algebra II. While I agree that most textbooks are terrible and I use them sparingly, I also know that they can be good sources of problems and an efficient (if outdated) way to look up theorems, definitions, and formulas. Here’s what Baker says about a new Algebra II book:

Algebra 2 Common Core is…a typical, old-fashioned algebra textbook. It’s a highly efficient engine for the creation of math rage: a dead scrap heap of repellent terminology, a collection of spiky, decontextualized, multistep mathematical black-box techniques that you must practice over and over and get by heart in order to be ready to do something interesting later on, when the time comes.

Anyone who actually teaches math this way deserves Baker’s over-the-top opprobrium. But I don’t know anyone who does teach it that way. Although I am not familiar with this particular textbook, so I don’t know whether the description is justified, I am convinced that Baker should be targeting pedagogy, not textbooks, if he wants to get rid of Algebra II as a required course.

Are some of Baker’s criticisms  justified? Probably so, but that depends on particular curricula and particular teachers.

Baker cites Grant Wiggins and Underwood Dudley — both of whom I greatly admire, even if I sometimes disagree with them — in support of his arguments. They at least have the credentials to give informed opinions. Baker quotes Wiggins as saying “You don’t need algebra for the majority of jobs. You need it for the burgeoning field of high-tech, but that’s not all the jobs. I just don’t get it. We’ve eviscerated vocational-training programs over the past fifteen years.” This remark is partially correct and partially incorrect. Yes, it’s unfortunate that voc programs have taken such a hit, but tenth-graders don’t have any idea yet what kind of career they’re going to have. They don’t know what they’re going to be doing three weeks from now, not to mention three years. We should be opening doors, not closing them. Let me give you an example: I know someone who is starting grad school in biology, a deep interest of his. But the bio program requires college-level physics, and that in turn requires calculus. Calculus, of course, requires precalculus…which this particular student had failed in high school. So now he needs to relearn precalc in order to take calculus in order to take physics in order to study biology. High-school students can’t plan that far ahead! There’s a reason why schools like Weston High School include Algebra II as a graduation requirement, and it’s not just a hurdle to jump over.

Baker then quotes Underwood Dudley as saying “Forcing people to take mathematics is just terrible. We shouldn’t do it. But we are.” As a mathematician, of course he wants to work with students who love math, not with a captive audience. But that brings up a tie-in with the post I wrote four days ago. If we didn’t require Algebra II, almost all the students in a community like Weston would take it anyway. But inner-city students in Boston wouldn’t. The result would be an increase in the achievement gap, because we would be having lower expectations for the latter group than the former. It would be a perfect example of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

For another point of view, you should definitely read Jason Dyer’s thoughtful commentary on Baker’s piece.


Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning, Weston