Young: Algebra II vs. Citizenship I
March 26, 2014
What would you say if someone told you that your state's emphasis on algebra was undermining math instruction?
What would you say if that someone was a math instructor?
What would you say if someone said algebra as emphasized — overemphasized — was undermining democracy?
Well, I'm saying the latter.
First, algebra vs. math. It sounds like a contradiction, but to hear a Texas math instructor explain it, as one did to me, it makes all the sense in the world.
It's something the teacher wishes policy makers — so fixated on one-size-fits-all, conveyor-style education "fixes," would hear.
He told me that school districts' forced march to get students to state-set benchmarks, advanced algebra being at the end of lawmakers' rainbow, has caused teachers to rush students through basic math. The result, he said: Far many students have only a cursory grasp of key concepts.
The teacher said that if policy makers really wanted students to master math, they would ease up on the throttle so that teachers could better reinforce the fundamentals.
This pace, this race, is the curse of "criterion-based" testing and top-down, rigid, "raise the bar" policies.
When everyone has to learn the same things at the same pace, some children won't. Period. Of course, teachers, not unmanageable requirements, will be blamed for this.
Now, what was that about algebra vs. democracy? It's a real duel, and democracy has been routed.
How is it that policy makers can be so concerned about advanced math and show so little concern for students' grasp of how things work in their nation, their state, their community?
Recently the College Board announced that the new SAT will include questions about civics. That prospect should give educrats the quakes. By and large, our children are so bereft of an understanding of civics as to make Lady Liberty hop a boat for France.
Let's face it. Our leaders are just as clueless about this national problem as is your average high school grad. Maybe they fear having a new generation that knows enough to pay attention.
Amid all the foment about higher math, too often we've seen civics, history and geography cast by the side of the road.
After all, where's the relevance in all that in comparison to 5(-3x-2) – (y-3) = -4(4x + 5)+13?
We don't want children wasting their time finding Crimea — or Oklahoma — on a map.
It's not a direct equation that less emphasis on math means more emphasis on citizenship. But we could only hope.
Fortunately, policy makers are realizing that not all students are college-bound, and not all college-bound students need advanced algebra.
Texas has dumped a requirement that all students take four years of math, meaning more choices for those who choose a degree or career path that doesn't require it. Florida has done the same thing. It no longer requires Algebra II for all.
California will no longer require all eighth-graders to take algebra. Now, don't panic, all you regimentation freaks. After all, presumably, those students still have four grades and puberty left for that. And students so inclined can still put pedal to the metal, algebra-wise.
Somewhere one of America's greatest college instructors is smiling over this.
Ralph Lynn, a legendary Baylor University history professor who wrote pithy commentaries in the local newspaper right up to his dying breath, was openly derisive about policy makers' fixation on algebra. He knew how few college graduates really needed advanced algebra. At the same time, every adult needs to know what a mill levy is and why a sales tax is regressive.
No, I don't assume that less emphasis on higher math will elevate the nation's citizenship IQ. However, I will invite readers to suggest anything, absolutely anything, that would.
Contact John Young at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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