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Algebra Is Today's Bête Noire

In an announcement that provoked a heated reaction, Texas will no longer require Algebra II for graduation ("Texas Board of Education votes again to drop algebra II mandate," Associated Press, Jan. 30).  I suspect that concern over the increasing dropout rate associated with the requirement was the primary reason.

I say this based on what happened in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest. In 2003, it made Algebra I a requirement for graduation. It triggered more dropouts than any single subject. Yet, in 2006 the district raised the bar for graduation even higher by making Algebra II a requirement by 2016. I know that correlation is not causation, but I question the wisdom of both decisions by the district. 

It's estimated that six million high school students struggle with algebra on any school day in this country. Their losing battle is seen by the one in four ninth graders who drop out ("Is Algebra Necessary?" The New York Times, Jul. 28, 2012).  I realize there are reasons beside algebra that account for this appalling figure, but I believe a strong case can be made for the unique role played by this subject.

I take this position because algebra trips up affluent and disadvantaged students as much as it does black and white students.  In other words, algebra respects no boundaries. Nevertheless, reformers insist that algebra is vital for a well-paying job.  I question if this is true.  I've never used algebra since I was required to take it to graduate.  If proficiency in numeracy is necessary, which I believe it is, then math teachers should create more practical courses, or what Andrew Hacker calls "citizen statistics."

There will always be students, of course, for whom algebra is indispensable.  But for the overwhelming majority of students, it's as necessary for success as Latin or Greek.



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