Essay — From the September 2013 issue

Wrong Answer

The case against Algebra II

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Think carefully again about this number: 25 percent. As the curtain rose on the baby boom era — the purported golden age of American education, when high school was really high school and girls wore cardigans and boys wore narrow ties and everyone aspired to work for Ford and AT&T, when Dictaphones were king and food engineers gave us mashed-potato flakes, when GM was designing the Chevy small-block V-8 engine, when missile silos held freshly minted hydrogen bombs and Admiral Hyman Rickover’s nuclear-powered submarines patrolled the waves — only a quarter of high schoolers learned algebra. In the misty childhood days of IBM’s Louis Gerstner (who would later co-found Achieve) and of a thousand other brilliant businessmen, inventors, engineers, and innovators, algebra was a nonexistent force in the lives of the majority of high school students.

Even so, many Cold Warriors were troubled. Russia was training junior mathematicians at a frightening rate. (Higher math was stressed in postwar Russia over other sciences partly because it is cheap: you don’t need a laboratory, just a pencil and paper.) And then there was Sputnik beeping away overhead. Admiral Rickover, in his popular 1959 book Education and Freedom, fretted over the “Russian success in combining mass education with highest-quality education for large numbers of her children.” The Russians could not be allowed to pull ahead of us. “We are engaged in a grim duel,” he wrote.

We are beginning to recognize the threat to American technical supremacy which could materialize if Russia succeeds in her ambitious program of achieving world scientific and engineering supremacy by turning out vast numbers of well-trained scientists and engineers.

So we scrambled. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, and curriculum designers came up with the New Math, which taught us about null sets and made us draw beautiful Venn diagrams, but was a flop. By 1966, about 65 percent of high schoolers were taking Algebra I and about 40 percent were taking Algebra II. We got Neil Armstrong to the moon, a feat that required huge supercooled tanks of liquid algebra, yet still the grim duelists banged their spoons on the pot lid of unprecedented crisis.

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people,” said a 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, emanating from the Reagan White House. By lowering our standards, the report said, America had been “committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” Math requirements and math homework were increased further, but this wasn’t enough for defense-minded worriers. A national “report card” followed in 1989, making the case that we were in an educational death spiral because students tested so badly in math.

Actually, wrote Paul E. Burke, a federal statistician and former math teacher, what the report card showed was encouraging: “Two-thirds of students know most of what we want them to know in math.” William Raspberry, a columnist for the Washington Post, interviewed Burke in April 1989. “Requiring unnecessary math does not create future scientists,” Burke told Raspberry. “It creates dropouts and hatred for math and for school.” (When I reached Burke at home, he said, “We should listen to the customers” — the students.)

Burke was ignored, as was another columnist for the Washington Post, Colman McCarthy, who wrote in 1991 that algebra was, for most, “useless torture.” Since then, it’s been decades of crisis, crisis, crisis. We are an innumerate nation, we don’t know where enemy countries are on a map, we can’t divide fractions, we’re under-STEMed, we’re worse at middle-school math than the Estonians. Bush’s No Child Left Behind has become Obama’s Race to the Top. We need more equations, more formulas, more benchmarks, more testing, more assessment software, more of what Arne Duncan calls “data-driven education.”

Math-intensive education hasn’t done much for Russia, as it turns out. But historical counterexamples don’t seem to interest the latest generation of crisis-mongers. We’ve once again gotten ourselves caught up in a strangely self-destructive statistical cold war with other high-achieving countries. The recruits are young teenagers, their ammunition the little bubbles on standardized tests. America’s technological future hinges, say the rigorists, on whether our student population can plug-and-chug the binomial theorem better than, say, Korean or Finnish or German or Chinese students. The childishness of this hypernationalistic mentality depresses me, and I want it to end, and I am not alone.

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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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