Précis — August 19, 2013, 1:10 pm

Nicholson Baker Argues that Algebra II Shouldn’t Be a Required Course

“Life’s prerequisites are courtesy and kindness, the times tables, fractions, percentages, ratios, reading, writing, some history — the rest is gravy, really.”

September 2013Young people, rejoice, you have a friend in Nicholson Baker (though we do recommend you wait a couple more years before reading his novels). Baker feels your pain — the pain of Algebra II, which, he argues in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine, should be kept out of the Common Core. Students, he writes, “are forced, repeatedly, to stare at hairy, square-rooted, polynomialed horseradish clumps of mute symbology that irritates them, that stop them in their tracks, that they can’t understand.”

Baker calls the course textbook, Algebra 2 Common Core, “a highly efficient engine for the creation of math rage: a dead scrap heap of repellent terminology, a collection of spiky, decontextualized, multistep mathematical black-box techniques that you must practice over and over and get by heart in order to be ready to do something interesting later on, when the time comes.” 

He speaks with many who agree with him, even people who are proficient with algorithms. “I’m a math guy, it’s not like I’m some fuzzy-headed humanist,” education reformer Grant Wiggins tells Baker. “You don’t need algebra for the majority of jobs. You need it for the burgeoning field of high-tech, but that’s not all the jobs. I just don’t get it.”

“Good heavens, no,” number theorist Underwood Dudley replies when asked by Baker if Algebra II should be required of all high schoolers. “Forcing people to take mathematics is just terrible. We shouldn’t do it.” Dudley believes that a silent majority of math teachers share this opinion. Steven Strogatz, a mathematician at Cornell, calls for the amount of math to be diminished, and for what is taught to be made more meaningful for the average child. “As someone who is working on the front lines,” he tells Baker, “it’s alarming to me, and discouraging that year after year I see such a large proportion of people really not learning anything — and just suffering while they’re doing it. We spend a lot of time avalanching students with answers to things that they wouldn’t think of asking.”

Baker agrees that less is more. He proposes “a new, one-year teaser course for ninth graders, which would briefly cover a few techniques of algebraic manipulation, some mind stretching geometric proofs, some nifty things about parabolas and conic sections, and even perhaps a soft-core hint of the infinitesimal, change-explaining powers of calculus. Throw in some scatter plots and data analysis, a touch of mathematical logic, and several representative topics in math history and math appreciation.”

Apparently nixing Algebra II is a touchy subject. Dudley warns Baker that he will get in trouble for writing about it. “The entire math department at the University of Tennessee stopped speaking to me,” said Michael Smith of the response to a book he wrote questioning the practical necessity of higher math in schools. “You’ve got a very tough subject to tackle,” says Michael Wiener, who wrote a book about the national obsession with college-prep math courses. “I feel sorry for you. It’s like quicksand. The more you get into this, the more you’ll sink.” 

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  • Golnar

    Nicholas Baker approached the issue of math-hate from entirely the least creative angle. Instead of scrapping Algebra II, and jumping to conclusions about the kind of effect it has on the Soul of the child as he grows into an adult, discuss the ways we can communicate the beauty of mathematics to those students who, for whatever reason, presume that “math just isn’t for them.”

    Math is aggravating to young students because math education in the United States is all-around lukewarmly taught and by amateurs themselves. The United States math education system is no where near Asia’s or Europe’s. Reform the education system. Discuss the importance of math. Don’t take out Algebra II.

    The kinds of things one is forced to learn when one is forced to learn some key mathematical principles are not necessarily found in any or every other subject. These are key skills, like endurance, like practice, like discipline, that are well to be experienced by young people. Sorry Harper, this angle is disappointing.

  • allenwoll

    To N Baker — I understand your idea, but it is not quite the optimum.
    .
    Characteristically, most people hate word problems — yet these are the most effective way to teach both the ROUTINES of math and the UTILITY of math.
    .
    If math educators are unable to devise word problems for each sector of math which they are attempting to teach and which are relevant to ordinary life, then that sector of math is ALSO not relevant to ordinary life : THAT is the test and THAT is MY challenge to THEM ! !
    .
    THAT approach will clear out the trashmath ! !

  • timothy john grobaty

    I agree 100 percent, and have written about the same subject (and gotten the same sort of response you’re getting). Algebra II as a requirement is ridiculous.

  • qwerty8257

    I confess that I am a physics teacher (who grew up in Russia, the land of the dreaded all-kids-take-calculus educational system), not a math teacher. But, hey, many of my friends are math teachers!

    I have been teaching in the US since 1992, at both private and public
    schools. I have an EdD from a top US ed. school (which, some may say,
    makes me less, not more, competent to make value judgments about the US
    education) and plenty of publications in the field of science education.
    I am certified to teach math, actually. I submit that I am certainly
    slightly more qualified than Mr. Baker (who has no background in math education other than having been, apparently, its victim in the past) to pass judgment on the US math
    education in general and Algebra II in particular.

    BTW, I consider Shakespeare in his “original language” obscure, boring and useless – but, unlike Mr. Baker, I have enough “humility” and shame not to broadcast my
    obvious lack of education and my inability to appreciate the classic
    literature written in antiquated English as a courageous and daring
    intellectual stand.

    My prediction is that the net effect of the article (whatever Mr.
    Baker may have intended it to be) will be a lot of people screaming:
    “Yeah. Algebra II sucks – let’s remove that requirement from the
    high-school curricula – who needs it anyway – I certainly don’t” Would
    you not agree that that will be the actual effect? As opposed to “How
    can we teach Algebra II better?”

  • Cliff

    I agree, although I might opt for more statistical analysis in place of Algebra II. As citizens we’re barraged by worthless statistics and it might help make them better citizens. Or at least gamblers. My other beef, not dissimilar to Algebra II is the foreign language requirement. Not trying to open another argument, but it’s a skill set that has never been put to use and was my “Algebra II” if you will.

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