Who Needs Math? A Student Responds

Published by MrHonner on

For a political science professor, Andrew Hacker is surprisingly familiar to math teachers.  His 2012 New York Times Op-Ed “Is Algebra Necessary?” generated lots of conversation in the math education community, including several pieces from me:  “N Ways to Use Algebra With the New York Times” in NYT Learning, and “Replace Algebra with Algebra?”.

Professor Hacker is back in 2016 promoting a new book, and in a recent NYT interview he revives his anti-math arguments from four years ago:  math is not really necessary for jobs; it’s too hard; it prevents students from graduating.

I saw the piece and didn’t feel the need to respond.  There was nothing new, and I’d said what I wanted to say here.

But I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this letter-to-the-editor, written by a high school student, published in the February 19th edition of the New York Times.

In “Who Needs Math? Not Everybody” (Education Life, Feb. 7), Andrew Hacker, who teaches quantitative reasoning at Queens College, says that since only 5 percent of people use algebra and/or geometry in their jobs, students don’t need to learn these subjects.

As a high school student, I strongly disagree.

The point of learning is to understand the world. If the only point of learning is job preparation, why should students learn history, or read Shakespeare?

And while your job may never require you to know the difference between a postulate and a theorem, it will almost certainly require other math-based skills, like how to prove something or how to understand a graph.  

And my surprise turned to delight when I realized that the author is a 9th grader in my Geometry class!

While her love of mathematics and her wonderful attitude toward learning certainly predate my Geometry course, I am very proud to see reflections of our classroom in her letter.

You can read the full text of her letter here.

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Jessy · April 12, 2016 at 7:36 pm

So I’m actually reading this book now and I think the interpretation is missing the mark. Learning is wonderful! But there is no high-stakes testing for history & Shakespeare. Yet we put that type of weight on mathematics, which is more specifically what I believe he’s arguing against. Especially as it pertains to denying high school diplomas (and entrance to colleges, college diplomas, and so on) to kids who are otherwise talented, intelligent, and hard-working… but who repeatedly flunk the required algebra courses or exams.

I also believe he’s arguing in favor of skills like how to prove something or how to understand a graph. I’m lucky to be in an independent school, so I toss out a lot of curriculum I find to be needlessly convoluted and go for depth of what I think is useful (in as much as it helps them prepare for the next year’s course or provides them with skills that will translate into other aspects of their lives).

But I love that your student is speaking up! Thanks to the internet, almost any content-based knowledge can be acquired with relative ease and for free. So what do teachers do? Inspire passion, build critical thinking and problem solving, encourage growth. Support them, advocate for them, push them. Sounds like you’re doing a great job.

    MrHonner · April 12, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    The student is responding to his NYT interview, not his book.

    I, personally, have no interest in what his book says, nor how it is interpreted. Andrew Hacker knows little to nothing about mathematics, a point that has been made repeatedly. This review of his book, by Evelyn Lamb, for instance; this series of tweets from Bowen Kerins; and here on this blog, as well.

    I don’t believe he knows much about teaching math, either. His academic discipline is completely unrelated to mathematics, and his experience teaching math is limited to a small course on civic numeracy he’s taught only a few times to a select set of students.

      Jessy · April 27, 2016 at 7:39 pm

      Wow. Intense response.

      Actually, I read all that stuff already. And I finished the book. I think it suffers from some semantics problems, which I’ll grant are certainly due to his lack of expertise. I also think both the older article (Is Algebra Necessary?) and the more recent one (The Wrong Way to Teach Math) are more about generating a stir than accurately conveying the point.

      However, I’d counter that his lack of expertise means his judgement isn’t clouded by his love of the subject. It also frees him from being stuck in the “well we’ve always done it this way” mindset. He makes some really good, really valid points… even if he can’t articulate them in a way that doesn’t put (nearly) everyone off.

      Reading the book didn’t change much about how I already felt, which is that we need an applied math track available to students who don’t want to pursue math for math’s sake. Kids are desperate for information about how things like credit cards, taxes, insurance, etc, work. Well, a lot of my kids, at least. And they’re required to pass the ALG2 Regents exam in order to graduate high school. Why??? I can’t come up with an answer that sits right with me. I’d say, “Because sometimes you have to do stuff you don’t like and it’s for your own good even if you don’t realize it,” except they could be spending that time learning about all the basic personal finance or consumer math stuff instead! Stuff that’s not only more interesting (to them), but far more valuable as well.

      So that’s the strongest argument in the book, I feel. The math we currently require causes an unnecessary barrier to success for a lot of students, for little payoff, as far as I can see. Though I do really like your other blog entry, about replacing algebra with algebra, because I think you’re right that he’s actually advocating for something along those lines (even though he may not know it).

      This says what I want to say, but a lot more eloquently, and probably in a way that jives with how you feel about all of it. Or, at least a lot closer to how you feel, I hope! : )


        Jessy · April 27, 2016 at 7:49 pm

        Okay, after deciding I should do my own due-diligence I think technically maybe they can still graduate with just the GEOM Regents exam? Though I think they’re still supposed to pass ALG1, GEOM, ALG2 as classes in order to graduate. I could be wrong, because like I said, I’m at an independent school here so it’s a bit foreign to me (only worked at public schools in Oregon)… Forgive me if I’m off-base about it, though it would be a happy mistake if I were and that kids can graduate without any ALG2. And I say that as a teacher of ALG2, PREC, and CALC!

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