THE MALEVOLENT TYRANNY OF ALGEBRA

 

Gerald W. Bracey

 

 

Quick, when was the last time you solved a quadratic equation?  Quick, given ax 2 + bx + c = 0, derive the formula for solving quadratic equations.  What does "quadratic" mean, anyway? (Hint: It's not the same as in "quadraphonic"). 

 

Quadratic equations are something that students learn when they take a subject called algebra.  Although people have long said that there will be prayer in school as long as there is algebra, today, algebra rules.  If physics is the Queen of Sciences, algebra is currently the King of All it Surveys. 

 

Although algebra is all about finding values in equations, it has no value for most people.  Its actual uselessness in most people's lives was wonderfully revealed in a Washington Post article from May 15, 1992.  The story described how parents in Fairfax County were rushing home from work, bolting down dinner, and going to school to learn…algebra.  "They came not for their benefit.  They had learned Algebra years ago and most of them had no use for X's and Y's in their current lives."

 

That sure gives the game away:  "Most of them had no use for X's and Y's in their current lives."  Yet they are inflicting those useless X's and Y's on themselves for the second time.  This time they're doing it so they can help their kids get through algebra.  Apparently it didn't occur to them to ask, "If I didn't need it, why am I suffering through it again just to help my kid successfully suffer through it?"

 

Why has algebra taken on such dimensions lately?  Why do students in Virginia have to take algebra to graduate from high school?  Why does Montgomery County (MD) Superintendent Jerry Weast fret over the failure rate on his algebra test?  Why did Lee Stith, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recently tell Post reporter Brigid Schulte that "Algebra is the civil rights issue of the new millennium, because it is that critical?"

 

Because virtually the whole nation has been algebra-scammed.  Said Weast "No algebra means no SAT test.  No SAT test means limited college choice  (never mind that even the most selective colleges admit a wide range of SAT scores and never mind that, in terms of later earnings, it doesn't matter what college you go to).  Even Schulte fell for it and wrote "Algebra is the gateway to college and higher-paying careers in a new technical world."

 

Nonsense.  Balderdash.

 

How did we come to think that algebra is important in kid's high school careers?  Because of a foible of the human brain.  Our brains appear to be hard-wired to make causal inferences from mere correlations.  No doubt from an evolutionary perspective, this is generally a good thing because it allows us to see patterns in our lives and in nature.  But, as psychologists early demonstrated, we often see causes when they don't inhere.  We infer causes where only correlations exist.

 

Psychologists demonstrated this many years ago.  They showed a circle of light, call it A, moving across a screen and touching a second circle of light, call it B.  If circle B then moved within a certain period of time, people watching the lights said that A caused B to move.  If there was a delay of some seconds, then people said that B moved independently of A.  We are especially wont to infer causality if event A is always followed by event B and if B never occurs unless A does first.  Actually, all this was worked out over two centuries ago by the British philosopher, David Hume, but he didn't have the technology to demonstrate it.  He probably also didn't realize the long times over which humans infer causality as with sex and the appearance of infants or, for some on the Right, the Sixties and the appearance of all current problems.

 

So it was that a few years ago, the College Board noticed that kids who take algebra (circle of light A), especially kids who take algebra in 8th or 9th grade, also tended to take rigorous high school curricula and to go to college (circle of light B).  Aha! Said the Board.  They saw a correlation between algebra and later attainment.  They then leapt to a causal conclusion: Algebra is a "gateway" course.  Having observed the correlation between taking algebra and going on to college, the Board inferred that there was a causal relationship. 

 

Nonsense.  Balderdash.

 

What happens is this: schools, whether we like it or not, are sorting machines.  Jefferson proposed them as such and they will function that way until some magical elixir can tune up the neurons in everyone's heads.  Schools identify academic talent in kids.  Children that teachers think are talented get algebra in 8th grade, those that have some talent, in 9th grade.  Those the school thinks have less ability, tangle with quadratics in a later grade or not at all. 

 

Is the school's ability to identify talent flawless?  Of course not.  Indeed, the reason that Mr. Stith casts algebra as a civil rights issue is that minority students are underrepresented in algebra classes in the 8th and 9th grades.  And some kids, of any ethnicity, who are quiet and shy, might get overlooked because they have not shown their teachers all they've got.

 

But is forcing everyone to take algebra the answer?  Of course not.  This will probably turn kids off math and even off school altogether more than it identifies hidden talent.  If I were a school official in Virginia or Montgomery County, I'd start looking for a correlation between forcing kids to take algebra and increased dropout rates.

 

Already we have some suggestive evidence from Milwaukee which has had an algebra-for-all program for six years.  Dennis Redovich a retired educator who runs the Center for the Study of Jobs and Education in Wisconsin reports that 60% of Milwaukee 9th graders fail algebra and that 9th graders constitute over 40% of Milwaukee's dropouts.  According to Redovich, the 9th grade in Milwaukee schools has been getting larger each year, largely as a result of students failing algebra and lacking enough credits to become 10th graders.  For instance, in 1998-99, the 9th grade contained 9,340 students, but the 10th grade only 6,048 and the 12th grade only 3,874. 

 

Says Redovich, "Only 60% of the students who take algebra pass it.  The kids fail algebra, sit around in 9th grade until they're sixteen or seventeen and then just disappear.  Some will hang on until they reach 18, the legal age for dropping out."  Some of the data seems to corroborate Redovich's contentions: If one subtracts the number of total dropouts from the 9th grade enrollment, almost 30% of the 9th graders are simply unaccounted for by 12th grade.  The sound I hear of doors opening, alright, but not doors of opportunity, exits for students flee through. 

 

The dumbest slogan to come down the educational pike in recent years is "All Children Can Learn."  This meaningless cliché has not been elevated to mean, in the case of algebra, that all students can learn to the same high standard.  This will happen about the same time as all students run a four-minute mile. 

 

We can do better, no doubt.  The place to start is elementary school, not 8th or 9th grade.  There are also many other reasons for taking algebra that have nothing to do with jobs or college.  Taught well (which it often isn't), algebra can reveal a language of relationships and the beauty and elegance of mathematics.  It can actually be an aesthetic experience.

 

Moreover, learning everything you can about everything you can is a good strategy in school because life after school contains so many uncertainties.  Neither you, your parents nor your teachers can possibly know what you  might need one day.  I've needed some algebra in my field, but haven't used calculus once in the 39 years since the final exam (jobwise, only 4% of the population actually needs advanced mathematics).  Had I entered a more quantitative branch of psychology, though, calculus would have been integral.  French, taken only because that's what kids in the college track did when I was in school, turned out to be essential when living in France and extremely useful when living in Spain and Italy and learning those languages because Spanish and Italian closely resemble French.  And so forth.  But thinking that cramming algebra into all kids' heads is the means to a better life is making a bad causal inference from a mere correlation.