Just because algebra is hard doesn’t mean we should give up on it

Algebra, a subject that has tortured generations of students, is again at the center of a heated debate.

It started five years ago when a retired political science professor and author provoked an outpouring of both positive and negative responses with his op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “Is Algebra Necessary?”

His answer was no.

Andrew Hacker, who taught political science at Queens College of the City University of New York, contended that algebra and other higher-order math classes are a big factor behind subpar high school graduation rates, and argued further that these courses impede otherwise-qualified students from earning college degrees in fields in which math plays no significant part.

(For those of you who have forgotten or intentionally blocked it from your consciousness, algebra is a branch of mathematics that substitutes letters for numbers. The goal of an algebraic problem is to find the unknown — remember “solve for x”?)

Now the controversy over algebra has reignited, thanks to the chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, who recently suggested that students who are not math or science majors should not have to take intermediate algebra to earn an associate’s degree.

When the head of the largest community college system in the nation makes a pronouncement like that, people tend to notice. And it’s hard to deny that he and others who are advocating for a relaxing of algebra standards do make a compelling case.

As with Hacker, their arguments center around the fact that math is often a major stumbling block for many students struggling to move forward academically. Too many students drop out or face delays completing their degrees because they fail intermediate algebra, a subject that has little or no direct relevance to their future employment, they say.

This circumstance disproportionately affects minorities and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, many contend.

A better alternative, according to this line of thinking, is to allow students who are not seeking math or science degrees to take statistics or another type of math course that is perceived to have a more practical application in a variety of non-technical fields.

“If we know we’re disadvantaging large swaths of students who we need in the workforce, we have to question why,” California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz said. “And is algebra really the only means we have to determine whether a student is going to be successful in their life? I think there’s a growing body of evidence and advocates that say, ‘No,’ that there are more relevant, just as rigorous, math pathways that we feel students should have the ability to take.”

But there are many reasons why the educational community should tread carefully and consider all the relevant information and counter-arguments before going forward with any changes.

Such a cautious, deliberate approach shouldn’t be employed merely because of the oft-cited concerns about the “dumbing down” of education standards — although this position certainly has its merits.

The most important reason to think twice before revising math requirements is that we need to ensure that whatever course requirements are decided upon aren’t merely in service of making it easier to graduate.

Mandatory course offerings must be carefully calibrated to enhance students’ critical thinking, abstract reasoning and problem-solving abilities — tools that are important in all walks of life. Any weakening of the instructional content used to foster such deep cognitive development will do students a great disservice in the long run.

Yes, there are other ways to sharpen students’ brains than through algebra. But the fact that a subject is hard shouldn’t give us license to give up on it, particularly because the problems with algebra comprehension stem largely from the woefully inadequate instruction at many schools, rather than from students’ inherent inability to grasp the subject’s complexities.

In other words, too many students struggle with math by the time they get to high school and college because they weren’t given the proper foundation in earlier years.

Wouldn’t a better goal be to work harder to improve the way math is taught, particularly in disadvantaged communities, so that we lose fewer kids early on?

Perhaps algebra isn’t necessary for many students. But it’s also possible that many young people who might otherwise pursue degrees and careers in STEM fields — that is, science, technology, engineering and math — are dissuaded from doing so because they don’t have access to solid math instruction and supportive programs.

Speaking as a non-STEM type, I remain grateful that I was given a sound education in higher-level math. While I don’t use what I learned directly, I am certain that learning to solve problems in algebra and calculus classes helped me become a deeper, more well-rounded thinker.

Watering down algebra requirements is a tempting answer to stalled academic paths. But before we go down that road, we’d better be sure that it’s really in students’ best interests and not merely the path of least resistance.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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