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Could this be the formula for solving the algebra conundrum?

Should Algebra II be retired? Critics and supporters both have solid arguments.
Should Algebra II be retired? Critics and supporters both have solid arguments. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

It is rare for opinion on any of my columns to be evenly divided. But the flood of comments I received on my piece about getting rid of Algebra II had good arguments on both sides, and indications of an emerging consensus.

Several readers, including some educators, endorsed the view of experts such as Robert Q. Berry III, a mathematics education professor at the University of Virginia who is president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He said Algebra II and courses like it have to be moved from “mindless manipulations in mathematics” to “conceptual understanding.”

Perhaps the sharpest critique of Algebra II came from Joshua P. Starr, a former superintendent of one of the nation’s best school districts, Montgomery County, Md. He said when he asked veteran Maryland officials why the course was still required, he was told the legislators who embraced it said “it taught abstract thinking skills essential to the [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] economy” even though “there was little or no debate about whether that’s actually true.”

Such skepticism was buttressed by personal experiences that convinced readers that Algebra II should be retired in favor of a course that taught statistics and data, important to jobs in many fields these days.

Claire Cassidy, who has a doctorate in human biology and a career in medical anthropology and medicine, said she probably had a learning disability when it came to math. She was saved from the torture of abstract math courses like Algebra II by sympathetic teachers who let her pass despite bad work.

“Then I took statistics,” she said. “For the first time ever, I understood, and could apply the information to real life, such as solving problems in my research.”

Rebecca Leung, a parent, said her teenagers were taking Algebra II. “I compare what they’re learning with the statistics and critical thinking adults and responsible citizens need to have. The overlapping areas of the Venn diagram are very small.”

On the other side of the argument were many math teachers and engineers. They said abandoning Algebra II just because liberal arts majors like me don’t think we need it was a bad idea. Bill Horkan, for example, is an accomplished math teacher in Fairfax County, Va. whom I have quoted many times.

He said Algebra I — which everyone seems to support — “is learning the nuts and bolts, how you get x by itself.”

Algebra II, he said, “is where you use this knowledge to solve problems. . . . You see a problem and you have a computer, a calculator, a formula sheet and your mind. Which is best to use? Which is quickest?”

Ze’ev Wurman, a math education expert who once worked for the U.S. Education Department, said: “If your goal is college, you’d better know your Algebra II. Everything and anything in sciences and social sciences today needs it, and one cannot have even a half-decent grasp of statistics without Algebra II.”

Wurman pointed toward a truce in this math war that might please both sides. “For non-college-going kids,” he said, “Algebra I and Geometry are probably all the math they need.”

Tom Loveless, a former education expert at the Brookings Institution, said: “I don’t think Algebra II should be required, but I’m hesitant to call for a statistics requirement. Most Algebra I courses include several weeks devoted to stats, so kids are getting exposure now.”

Bill Katz, who has a master’s degree in systems engineering and taught math at a community college, said a basic understanding of math is still necessary for all students, although “you do not necessarily need Algebra II or Calculus to do this.”

Something still has to be done, he said, about what he considers a disturbing reality. “Most children are subtly taught that math is hard and to be afraid of math by elementary school teachers and parents,” he said.

If only two math subjects, Algebra I and Geometry, are going to be required for everyone in high school, Loveless said, they should be taught more thoroughly than they are now. “I’d like us to make a more serious effort,” he said, “even if it takes two two-year courses in high school.”

It is an interesting idea. Many teachers are calling for schools to demand mastery. Students stay in the course until they demonstrate they know the material, rather than just get by with a D. If teenagers are told they will need a second year of algebra if they don’t work hard in the first year, that might be a powerful motivator.

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