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Monday, July 30, 2012

The Problem with Algebra

On Sunday, I read an article in the NY Times entitled "The Problem with Algebra.”  It was a great article and one with which I can personally identify.  The gist of the article is that every day there are millions of high school students and college freshman who struggle with Algebra.  College Algebra can be the single reason why a student drops out of college in their freshman year.  I can truly identify with this issue and it happened to me about 40 years ago.  As a freshman in high school I did well , (B+) in Algebra I.  I had a great teacher.  In my sophomore year, it was Geometry.  I passed Mr. Dietrich's class by the skin of my teeth.  He ran the class like a German prison camp; everyone in the class struggled.  Then it was onto Algebra II taught by our high school football coach.  I kept trying to figure out which one of us was more clueless about Algebra and unfortunately for me, I wasn't a football player.  While in Coach Kaline's class, it didn't take long to figure out how all of the football players passed and I didn't.  I failed the class and had to repeat it in my senior year, fortunately not with Coach, and I got a solid B.  Then onto college  and back to a lousy instructor (the Soccer Coach) and the same rut. I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: just change Algebra classes without formally telling anyone.  I convinced the new instructor that I would work it out with everyone, so she let me into the class.  I never got around to making the class change official.  At the end of the semester all hell broke loose, but I talked my way out of trouble and ended up with another B.  Anyway, as a nation, we need to get rid of mandatory Algebra classes (along with coaches who teach math) and focus on a more useful approach to the entire arena of mathematics.  Introduce general math, business math, statistics or even quantitative reasoning into high school and college and not make Algebra, Geometry or even Calculus required.  I would much rather have individuals with strong basic math skills (i.e. a cashier be able to make accurate change) rather than have them struggle through or even fail a required Algebra class.  Most students never have to apply any of what they learned in these classes again and many are forced to drop out of high school or college.  The question is who do we require all of this for, the student or continued prestige for the college or university?

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