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.