A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with reading and writing. We ought to face reality: most of these students might graduate, but they’ll never crack another book in their life, the bulk of their written communications skills require nothing more than their thumbs and a tiny screen and fleeting comments that require neither punctuation nor even lower case — Y U NO WRT ME? — let alone grammar. If they make it to their version of advanced studies — business school — the epitome of literacy will be the 5 line, six words per line bullet point slide in PowerPoint, and most of the lines will consist of stock phrases.
Meanwhile, the schools invest time, money, and teachers in futile efforts to make students with the attention spans of mosquitos try to read short stories, and even novels…and then, in the inevitable standardized test, they are challenged to extract meaning from at best three paragraph snippets. They then regurgitate trivialities in the stock 5-paragraph essay: I’m going to tell you 3 things, here’s thing 1, here’s thing 2, here’s thing 3, I just told you 3 things.
Why are we wasting time on these antique skills? You know they hate reading, they don’t want to read, and once we stop nagging them about reading, they’ll avoid it altogether for the rest of their lives. Why read a book when you can just wait for the Hollywood version, which will also include breasts and explosions? These are also skills most people won’t need in whatever jobs they end up doing.
So here’s my proposal: let’s stop.
We’ll save money. School can be abbreviated, getting the kids into the workforce faster. We won’t need to train teachers; any babysitter will do. And most importantly, graduation rates will soar right through the roof. And as we all know, graduation rates are the only numbers we need to determine whether our students is learning, and our schools is teaching.
I’m certain this idea will have enthusiastic Republican support, and that the Democrats will follow along.
I know, you don’t believe I’m serious. Then how can we believe Andrew Hacker? He seriously proposes in the NY Times (which will apparently publish anything nowadays) that we should stop teaching algebra. Algebra! The one basic, elementary mathematical principle we should expect our kids to learn, and he considers it superfluous.
His reasoning is bizarre.
The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.
Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that “to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.” For those who stay in school, there are often “exit exams,” almost all of which contain an algebra component. In Oklahoma, 33 percent failed to pass last year, as did 35 percent in West Virginia.
Um, yeah? Math is non-trivial, and it’s conceptually difficult for some students to master. But that is true of every single thing worth learning. The purpose of an education is not to get a diploma, but to learn challenging and useful knowledge, and his approach is to redefine education to be something anyone can get with little effort — in essence, he’s making an education achievable by more people by stripping out the difficult learning part. But that’s not an education any more!
And to remove algebra from the curriculum…I can scarcely believe it. We live in a technological society. Not learning algebra in the public school system means those kids will not be prepared, will not be qualified, to do anything in science and engineering. I’m serious: if you don’t know algebra, you can’t do basic quantitative chemistry, and if you can’t do that, you can’t do biology. At all. Not the molecular/biochemical/bench side, not the ecological/evolutionary/field side. You can’t do physics, that’s for sure. Forget math and statistics. If you’re not capable of grasping statistics, forget psychology, too.
You can probably still be a competent English major, I admit. But wouldn’t we be better off if all the English majors had an inkling of the foundations of science, as well as all the science majors having a touch of the humanities and social sciences? Shouldn’t we expect that even those people who choose not to pursue a college degree ought to have a bare minimum of competence in math and history and language and science and art, if we’re actually going to deem them educated?
Setting algebra as a minimum is actually setting a low bar. If a third of the students are failing that minimal expectation, then the solution isn’t to simply disappear the requirement, but to teach it better. Or admit that students who can’t read, who can’t write, who can’t do a simple algebraic manipulation, are not educated. Period. No excuses.
And if you’re going to do that, you might as well write off any delusions about having a well-informed citizenry.