Here’s the original article from the NYT Sunday. Basically, a political scientist (I know, right? What the hell are education researchers doing with all of their time anyway?) argues that math requirements are too stringent and discourage some students from completing their education.
On the one hand, we have a post here from Dan Willingham who basically argues that algebra is indeed necessary. Here’s a taste:
The inability to cope with math is not the main reason that students drop out of high school. Yes, a low grade in math predicts dropping out, but no more so than a low grade in English. Furthermore, behavioral factors like motivation, self-regulation, social control (Casillas, Robbins, Allen & Kuo, 2012), as well as a feeling of connectedness and engagement at school (Archambault et al, 2009) are as important as GPA to dropout. So it’s misleading to depict math as the chief villain in America’s high dropout rate.
Then we have Fred Klonsky, who is sympathetic to the NYT article’s contention about algebra. But here’s his best point:
I concede to my math friends that they make a good case. The mathematical lens is one way to understand the world. Math can be taught better. Higher level math is denied to many students because of their class, race and gender. The fight to make higher level math skills and knowledge available to all to all is an important social justice issue.
But remember. The Arts is also a lens in which we come to understand the world.
Remember that hundreds of Chicago schools have no access to any Arts instruction at all. That’s a social justice issue too.
From Mr. Willingham, we basically have a Perennialist argument here, that the best education is one where students grapple with complicated subject matters, like a classical canon or something. It is almost as if the mind is a muscle that must be trained and stressed in order to get stronger or smarter. Well, we know that analogy no longer holds, that’s not how the brain works.
So, from this perspective, as Fred suggests, someone is always going to value their subject more than others. I’ve been a social studies advocate and there’s not a whole lot of that being taught right now in the elementary school. With a finite number of minutes in the school day, there’s only so much time you have to offer for everyone’s favorite subjects, math included.
What is being done to the arts right now is absolutely terrible, yet no one makes as strong a defense of them, not even educators. Math or reading time is NEVER cut at the expense of art or music. I’ve even seen SCIENCE cut at the expense of straight math instruction. We’ve had absolute curricular dominance of math and reading over the last ten years, perhaps more, and we’re still struggling with this issue?
I am sympathetic to the idea that intellectual hurdles may have all sorts of other benefits other than just mastery of the subject. Even if mastery has not occurred, there’s still something to be said about the effort. And we can’t keep “dumbing down” curriculum until everyone can pass a very low bar. I get it.
My wife is going through her medical education right now and was always frustrated that she had to bust her ass in Calculus and Organic Chemistry. Both of these subjects are clearly gatekeepers. She has an advanced degree in Bioethics and Narrative Medicine, which I think is going to make her an infinitely better doctor than sweating through advanced math. It’s a very old model.
And I think that’s what the NYT article was trying to argue, albeit in a less than effective fashion. What is it about advanced mathematics that so fits the stereotypical bill of a rigorous education? Sure, I would not want to be the one who would have to parse out who gets advanced math and who doesn’t because it would seem to have a very dangerously elitist component to it.
I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone out there proposed that one’s success in 8th grade algebra was a serious predictor of educational success (can someone help me out on this?). Is that it, one math class? And what if you fail, should you just give up? Seems like very high stakes for one class, one subject, one year. I’m not saying I have the answers here, but there’s a lot of curricular models out there and they deserve serious examination.