My husband recently caught a few minutes of a Diane Rehm show episode where they discussed a NY Times editorial that suggests we should rethink requiring high school students to master algebra in order to graduate. My husband convinced me to listen to a podcast of the show during a long car ride, even though I told him that we would probably be yelling at the car stereo for most of the trip. We did listen and found the discussion interesting and frustrating.

My first response to the idea of eliminating the algebra requirement was: “Well, I wasn’t crazy about English Lit and didn’t find it all that useful in my later life or career – why not eliminate that as well?”. I never quite understood why schools required 4 years of English courses and not 4 years of math courses, but my point here isn’t really to knock English classes. It’s just that not every class required in high school is going to be directly used by every student later in life. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its merits.

OK, I admit that I have always done well in math and that not all students are so lucky. But is the difficulty a problem with the students or the way they are taught? I’ve known many coworkers from other countries and most see Americans’ attitude about “math is hard, so it’s okay that you can’t do it” to be, well, mostly an American attitude. Math may be difficult for some students, but it is worth mastering. I am not an educator, but I wonder if we investigated why students in other countries perform better on math tests we might find some clues to our own problems with the subject.

According to Ed Nolan on the Diane Rehm show podcast, one problem could be the way that math is taught. Many of us (myself included) were taught math by rules instead of getting the students to understand the underlying concepts. It is so easy to mix up the rules and often they don’t help when you hit a problem that doesn’t nicely fit the rule (like the dreaded word problem!). Why are students taught that they have to use a very specific recipe for every problem instead of relying on critical thinking skills to come up with the answers? I can recall being denied credit on math assignments in high school because I did not use the exact method the teacher wanted, even though my reasoning was sound and the answer was correct. Then when I hit college I was surprised when I was expected to use critical thinking skills to work my own way through problems and theorems. Creativity was valuable! The same methods and skills that I had been discouraged from using in high school turned out to be the very ones that were critical for success in college and my career. The most difficult and important problems almost always require the “out-of-the-box” thinking that employers covet and high school math teachers frown upon.

One problem I see with allowing students to skip algebra is that this will prevent them from learning any higher math, which can be a problem if a student later decides he needs that knowledge. Math and science courses differ from others like English and history in that the knowledge has to be built up in a series of steps. You cannot succeed in higher level math classes like trigonometry and calculus without first mastering algebra. So, maybe not everyone is going to be an engineer, scientist or mathematician; that doesn’t mean that they don’t need math. I would argue that many other types of jobs require math. How else can a painter figure out how much paint he is going to need to complete a room? Besides, do students in the 8th, 9th, or 10th grade even know for certain what kind of career they want to pursue? I doubt it. I didn’t know what I was going to major in when I entered college, let alone in the 10th grade. I am grateful that I took all the required math classes in high school so I was ready when I switched majors to engineering. I would hate to see students finding their potential career choices limited because they were allowed to skip foundation classes in high school.

I also believe that everyone just needs a basic understanding of mathematics as they make their way through life. I am constantly surprised at how deficient many people are in math. Years ago when I worked at a local department store, we regularly had sales where credit card customers could get the sale discount and then another 10% off. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve argued with customers that getting 40% off and then 10% off is not 50% off! I personally use math all the time when I am at the grocery store. I have discovered it is not uncommon for 18 eggs to be more expensive per egg than 12 eggs. I also worry about the number of people who honestly don’t understand compound interest. They don’t realize how much that meal they put on their credit card is really going to cost them in the long run or why saving for retirement at 20 requires so much less money that if you start at 35. Although I’m not going to claim to understand everything about mortgages, at least I can calculate whether the monthly payment the bank is quoting me is accurate. I also know how to critically analyze statistics so I can spot when someone is quoting carefully chosen numbers so that the conclusion drawn matches their agenda. And don’t even get me started about logic problems. I get so tired of people claiming that because two events seem to always happen at the same time that one has to be the cause of the other. These are the critical thinking skills we need in order to analyze, question and understand the world around us. Missing out on these skills leaves one’s education incomplete.

I’m not against having a discussion about the problems some students have learning algebra. I think it is time we really talk about why we our students are so far behind the rest of the world in math and science. I don’t have the answers, but I don’t think giving up trying to teach the concepts is the answer either.