Essay — From the September 2013 issue

Wrong Answer

The case against Algebra II

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Here’s the funny thing. This has all happened before, beginning about a hundred years ago, and much of the controversy centered around Chicago, Arne Duncan’s hometown. In 1907, education laws changed in Chicago, more or less in concert with changes happening across the country. Instead of being allowed to leave school at fourteen, children were now required to attend through the age of sixteen. There they sat by the thousands at their wooden desks, awaiting daily instruction. But what was there for teachers to teach?

Well, first they taught the things they’d always taught, the things that colleges required: Latin grammar, English grammar and composition, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. The result, especially in math classes, was that failure rates soared. It was clear to many educators that there was a serious problem: compulsory schooling for all wouldn’t work if algebra was a part of the required curriculum.

The solution was reform. In 1919, Henry C. Morrison, who’d been in charge of public schools in New Hampshire, took over superintendence of the influential Chicago Laboratory Schools, founded on progressive principles by John Dewey. From his years of teaching math (as well as history and Latin), Morrison had definite ideas about what was and wasn’t possible in secondary education in the twentieth century. He rejected the notion — still held by many then and now — that a child’s mind is like an underdeveloped quadriceps muscle, to be strengthened by the more or less arbitrary tasks of classical-grammar parsing and vigorous mathematical squat thrusting. Morrison didn’t believe, in particular, that the study of mathematics trained the mental faculties in ways that dependably transferred into other areas of life. In a 1915 paper, “Reconstructed Mathematics in the High School,” he wrote:

The mind which has been molded to the method of mathematics will use that method in mathematics, and in thinking allied to mathematics, alone. The mathematician himself behaves in about the same manner as other mortals in a social or a political situation, but he reacts more efficiently in a certain type of scientific situation than does he who is devoid of mathematical training.

The high school syllabus had to change to accommodate the needs of universal education, Morrison believed. “School administrators and school patrons,” he wrote in 1921, “have come to the conclusion that algebra and geometry as traditionally taught in the high schools are intolerable failures.”

Morrison’s beliefs were seconded by another University of Chicago professor, John Franklin Bobbitt, who wrote in 1922 that “students in general do not need algebra, geometry, or trigonometry,” and by a strong-willed reformer, William McAndrew, who became superintendent of Chicago schools in 1924. McAndrew, like Morrison, had taught algebra and geometry, and he could discern (as he told an audience of teachers in 1908) no correspondence between these high school subjects and “the educative processes of real life.”

These assaults on the algebraic citadel alarmed the traditionalists, chief among them a high school math teacher named C. M. Austin, founder of the Men’s Mathematics Club of Chicago. In the early 1920s, Austin, lamenting that “high school mathematics courses have been assailed on every hand,” launched a counterattack by organizing the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics — the same group that Arne Duncan addressed in 2011. Its appointed task was to make the case for required math and stop the spread of freethinking, Deweyite, student-friendly doctrines. Austin was its first president.

But though the NCTM published hundreds of articles on curriculum reform and on the disciplinary and work-ethical and even religious values that came with a strong mathematical education, they fought a losing battle. Ohio was among the first states to remove the math requirement from high school, in 1921, declaring that “it is not fair to impose a study upon a pupil on the contingency that he may some day utilize it in a practical way when the indications all point in the opposite direction.”

In 1931, with about half of New York’s elementary-algebra students failing the statewide Regents exam, an NYU professor of education, Philip Cox, wrote an editorial in a journal called The Clearing-House. “If the mathematics enthusiasts would study the failure rates of mathematics throughout the junior- and senior-high-school period,” he said, “they might be aghast at the death and destruction that prescribed and even recommended mathematics scatter in their trains.”

The most widely read denunciation of required algebra came that same year, from a syndicated advice columnist named Arthur Dean. Dean was a former engineer and a graduate of MIT who had taught math for years; his column, called Your Boy and Your Girl, was full of compassion and good sense. In an item published on March 27, 1930, Dean wrote:

I cannot see that algebra contributes one iota to a young person’s health or one grain of inspiration to his spirit. . . . It is the one subject in the curriculum that has kept children from finishing high school, from developing their special interests and from enjoying much of their home study work. It has caused more family rows, more tears, more heartaches and more sleepless nights than any other school subject.

A math teacher read Dean’s column aloud to her class, and 80 percent of the students raised their hands in agreement with it. One mother sent a dissenting note in favor of algebra. “Because a girl may never make a dress,” she wrote, “would you have plain sewing dropped from our schools?” Dean’s answer was, no, don’t drop sewing. Just make it, and algebra, an elective.

So pervasive and forceful were the arguments by Dean, Cox, McAndrew, and others against required high school math that Eric Bell, a mathematician and science-fiction writer, maintained in 1937 that the entire discipline was under siege: “Are not mathematicians and teachers of mathematics in liberal America today facing the bitterest struggle for their continued existence in the history of our Republic?” Mathematics was, Bell said, “fighting a desperate rear-guard action to ward off annihilation.”

Which was a ridiculous statement. Mathematics was flying high — it was nowhere near annihilation. There may have been fewer math teachers employed in public high schools as a consequence of the removal of the algebra requirement, but those who fancied math were working hard at it and doing it well, and the sciences that relied on applied-math proficiencies were making discoveries by the boatload. By 1950, at a time when only a quarter of American high school students were taking algebra, the nation’s technological prowess was the envy of the planet.

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is the author of fourteen books. His new novel, Traveling Sprinkler, will be published this month by Blue Rider Press.

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