The Algebra dispute.

I knew my math teacher friends would not be happy when I tweeted agreement with the Sunday NY Times article by Andrew Hacker questioning whether Algebra was necessary.

And they weren’t happy.

Soon my Facebook page was filled with counter arguments.

My friend Arthur posted a response by Daniel Willingham to Hacker’s NY Times column in which Willingham defends algebra.

First. My disclaimer.

I was never good at math. I not only don’t remember anything I learned in high school Algebra, I have no visual memory of actually being in class. When my own kids came to me for help with math homework, I was okay until they got to Algebra. Then I sent them to their mother.

The good side of this debate is that it is a discussion about curriculum, subject matter, the disciplines of knowledge and their value. We spend so much time talking about money, testing, teacher evaluation, teacher contracts and everything that has so little to do with teaching and learning that debating the value of algebra becomes a breath of fresh air.

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.

Remember that even in the suburban school district where I taught, students have less than 4% of their instructional week devoted to the visual arts.

Remember that there does presently exist a hierarchy when it comes to the disciplines of knowledge. Math trumps the Arts even where lip service is given to teaching the whole child.

Remember that there are finite minutes (Rahm Emanuel not withstanding) to the school day. Short of rethinking the way we conceive the instructional day (and I’m  sure open to that), teaching one thing means we are not teaching something else.

I was often asked by classroom teachers to collaborate on projects which would enrich the regular classroom content with a visual arts component.

It rarely went the other way. There was rarely an offer to enrich the Arts curriculum with classroom connections.

It is a fact of school life that we circle the wagons to defend the subjects we love and that we teach.

Maybe there’s another way.

7 thoughts on “The Algebra dispute.

  1. I must not know any math teachers. Most of my friends loved the article. One who is a PhD in science said she thought it depended on what you did in future work. I remember doing a beautiful math project for the math fair in 7th grade that was called “Mathematics in Music” with a drawing of a harp and a tuning fork as props. Would love to see an integrated curriculum — just the opposite of what they are doing now.

  2. Hi Fred, thanks for a thoughtful post. I thought I was bad at art when I was in elementary and middle school. I never took a single art class in high school or college because of that. I took a drawing on the right side of the brain class while I was in grad school, and lots more art classes when I got a position teaching at a community college.

    I think school convinces us that we’re ‘bad at’ lots of things. I love drawing and pottery (though I don’t do either much). I should put my cow skull drawing on the wall for my son to see… It took getting away from my childhood response to school to find out I loved making art.

    Math may be the same way, but not many people decide to ‘play around’ with it.

    I say nothing should be required (or all of it, but that’s a distant second) – art, music, math, science (playing around, not learning the names of things), social studies (no textbooks, please! learn from the world), …

  3. I meant to say math may be the same way for others. I teach math, and am working on a book titled Playing With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers. I hope to get lots of less mathy people playing with math the way I play with art.

  4. My issue with math, or any of the “core” curricular areas, is that discussion about it often places a premium on one curriculum over another. As you’ve expressed, we think it the norm that arts programs are cut or that students receive far fewer minutes in visual communications as completely acceptable and normal. Yet if we were to discuss cutting math minutes or lowering graduation requirements for math – which are already three or four times higher than for all the arts combined in most high schools – people’s heads explode.

    Take a student struggling in math and make them take more of it and you may see test scores increase. You may also see this student view school as something to dread, as the time available to pursue their passion is eliminated from their schedule.

    If we are to educate the whole child, then we have to stop treating any one subject as more important than other subjects. We have to stop saying a child needs three times more of one single subject to graduate than all of the arts combined. Math is important to some careers. But so is the visual arts, and in our increasingly visual and media based society, visual literacy is critical to many careers.

  5. Of course algebra isn’t “necessary.” I taught Shakespeare and it wasn’t “necessary.” Isn’t that the whole problem, that people decide what is “necessary” for other people? And then they collude to force people to accept what THEY think is necessary? I dropped math at the end of tenth grade so I could take another foreign language. That was “necessary” for me. Today, you can’t do that, because the test scores rule, not “what’s best for the kids” or for any ONE kid. To this day, I do not for a second regret not ever taking physics, though I love to watch NOVA specials on physics. Isn’t it just as stupid to decide algebra isn’t “necessary” as it is to decide art is not necessary? Now if “necessary” means “included on the idiotic test”, that’s a different story…I think art IS necessary, but it should never be included on the idiotic test. This is the problem social studies teachers encounter now…many think they are downvalued if they are not included on the idiotic test. Does anybody actually think the so-called “core curriculum” is actually the core, that EVERYBODY must know?

  6. It would be nice if more people understood enough about math to know why this test mania is stupid. If the deformers understood the statistics, they might realize their efforts are misdirected. My wealthy home district is now trying to figure out how they can standardize what is taught in the arts (not just visual, by the way), so they can test it. What ever happened to “the love of learning?”

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