The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Of course algebra is important. It’s also a huge problem.

(Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

This was the headline this week of a story in the Deseret News in Utah about Brigham Young University President Kevin Worthen and his wife, Peggy: “Don’t quit because of fear or algebra, Worthens tell BYU students.”

The algebra part wasn’t a joke: Peggy Worthen earned a bachelor’s degree at the school when she was in her 40s and nearly didn’t get it because she initially flunked her algebra final. She eventually passed, but the subject has been a dream-killer for a lot of people who have sought two- and four-year degrees but haven’t been able to get through the required algebra class.

In this piece, Cathy N. Davidson, a professor and founder of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, looks at the importance of algebra as well as the problems of making it a requirement. Her new book, published this month, is “The New Education:  How To Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.”

Stop telling kids you’re bad at math. You are spreading math anxiety ‘like a virus.’

By Cathy N. Davidson

Nineteen years old, a competitive Illinois weightlifter named Gary worked 40 hours a week at the local butcher shop while repeating algebra, the one class he still needed to finish high school. On the side, he ran a motorcycle repair business where he specialized in restoring battered vintage Harleys. This was many years ago, but I will never forget his enormous hands disassembling an old bike and laying out each part on a plastic sheet with the precision of a brain surgeon arranging his instruments. He’d fix and shine the motorcycle, and have it idling there, gleaming, so the owner would be greeted by the distinctive pop-pop engine sound every Harley lover cherishes. At the butcher shop, Gary was known for tallying the cost of all your purchases in his head. Although he never studied the language, he joked around in Spanish with one of the other seniors that I tutored in algebra. He liked to talk about himself in the third person, using a self-deprecating name for himself: “Big Dumb Gary.” This was Gary’s third and last try at algebra.

No one wanted to graduate more.  It was during the Vietnam War and he was desperate to earn a diploma so he could fulfill his dream of joining the Marines to serve his country. The other five guys I tutored that year were also desperate to pass algebra since they were sure that, without a diploma, they’d become statistics, drafted into the Army and be sent straight to ‘Nam,  working-class cannon fodder. All six studied algebra as if their lives depended on it.

I was 14 then, a high school freshman. Although I have been a college professor now for decades in many situations, I look back at that year tutoring algebra as the single most difficult teaching experience I’ve ever had. I tried every pedagogical trick and the guys studied as hard as they could. For all our collective efforts, no one really learned algebra, although they all managed to graduate, squeaking through Algebra I, by hook and, I’m ashamed to admit, more than a little by crook.

As we begin another school year, we’ll see many more kids like Gary and his pals for whom algebra is torture. Well-intentioned educators again will engage in the old argument about whether algebra should or should not be required. Some will argue it is essential since it’s the gateway to all mathematics and teaches problem-solving and critical thinking. They are absolutely correct — and they absolutely miss the point.

For too many students, algebra is not the gateway to mathematical literacy. It is the gatekeeper.

Algebra is the single most failed course in high school, the most failed course in community college, and, along with English language for nonnative speakers, the single biggest academic reason that community colleges have a high dropout rate. Although 60 percent of students enrolled at community colleges must take at least one course in math, about eighty percent of students never fulfill the requirement. They leave without graduating. They probably go through life thinking of themselves as the equivalent of “Big Dumb Gary.”

Algebra is foundational to formal mathematics, but it is not necessary for many important and useful forms of mathematical literacy. Statistics and data analysis, for example, often come easily to many who cannot fathom abstract algebraic thinking. Over the years, I’ve worked with many superb professional computer programmers who hated algebra, some of whom dropped out of college or even high school because of it.

Why math fills so many of us with dread

I understand the recurring algebra debate better than most, not only because of my youthful experience tutoring algebra but because I’m dyslexic. Learning disabilities weren’t really a “thing” back when I was a student. My teachers attributed my erratic educational performance to being obstinate. I was considered a math whiz and won a national math contest in middle school, but I don’t think I ever had a final report card grade above a C in math. I suspect the math teacher who recruited me to tutor algebra believed that my checkered educational achievement would make it easier to connect with the kids repeating algebra.

It wasn’t until my mid-20s, though, armed with a PhD and already an assistant professor at a large state university, when I took a battery of tests that led to an educational psychologist pronouncing me “dyslexic.”  Suddenly my educational history had a theory and an explanation, one that serves me to this day. I still enjoy reading about abstract math, like black holes or infinite-dimension Hilbert space, but please don’t count on me to get you anywhere with a map or to calculate the tip the next time we go to dinner.  You need to go to someone like Gary for that.

If you love math (as I do), it’s easy to see that algebra is the basis of everything else. If you are dyslexic (as I am), you know that some things that are incredibly important are simply beyond your grasp. Do you fail someone from formal educational opportunities who has will, skills, and intellectual abilities simply because they can’t master algebraic thinking? Or do you offer alternative, productive forms of math competencies to challenge them and help them grow?

Whether to require or not require algebra — in both high school and in college — boils down to one’s view of the purpose of education. If the purpose is credentialing — certifying that the student has earned passing grades in a predefined suite of courses that, collectively, constitute the requirements for a diploma — then it is fine to require anything you want, including algebra.

But if you have a longer view of the purpose of education — that its true mission is to prepare students for everything that comes after graduation — then it is time get rid of the one-size-fits-all prescriptive curriculum.

I lost touch with Gary after my family moved away from our town. Some years later, I ran into a mutual acquaintance who told me that he did fulfill his dream of joining the Marines. He volunteered for Vietnam, served more than one tour of duty, and returned disabled, with multiple injuries from the war and as many decorations for his valor. He was a hero.