Education

Q&A: Is the 'math myth' holding back students who don't need it?

Posted May 25

Are high school algebra requirements a needless stumbling block or a necessary bridge to success? The answer depends on who you ask.

If you ask advocates of the new common core standards, more algebra is better. Common Core, now adopted by 46 states, requires high school students to pass Algebra II.

Ironically, one of the states that won't be participating is Texas, which dropped its Algebra II graduation requirement in 2014, after being one of the first states to adopt the requirement in the early 2000s. Texas dropped its requirement under pressure from local industry groups, who argued that career readiness did not require higher math, and that the Algebra 2 requirement was preventing kids from graduating.

That argument is echoed by Andrew Hacker, a retired political science professor who spent most of his career at Queens College in New York City, who has become the leading national spokesman for the controversial notion that we ask our high school students to do too much math.

Hacker's new book, "The Math Myth," is polarizing that debate — drawing fire, in particular, from math professors. Hacker argues that we need more numeracy and statistical knowledge, but less esoteric higher math, which he equates to the pedagogical fetish in previous generations with making students study Latin. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Some say we teach too little math, or we teach it badly. You say we teach too much, or the wrong kinds. Why do you think Algebra and Algebra II are barriers rather than bridges to success?

Currently 4 million 15-year-olds are slogging through Algebra. And we make them all do it, every single one. Why? To keep the door open for maybe 50,000 who might want to use math in their career. The other 3.9 million have to do it because of those few. By the same reasoning, you can make everybody study Arabic, because a few people would need it later?

A lot of people are saying that even average careers in the future will require more and more math. You see this as a myth?

Those new jobs will not require more algebra or trigonometry. They will require more quantitative skills, which are quite different form mathematical skills. And it’s a myth that the more math you learn, the more adept you will become with quantitative work. I would much prefer, rather than herding kids in 8th grade into algebra, to continue with serious numerical work — which is what they will need on the job and as citizens, to read a corporate report, look at the federal budget, assess campaign promises. None of that requires academic math.

What you just said sounds like the real world applications of math touted in the Common Core?

I would love to see the Common Core do this, but the core now has itself up to two years of algebra. I’m watching to see what happens when the first returns are in for high school kids doing this. That two-year requirement is very stiff. The failure rate is going to be fantastic, unless they cheat and just re-curve the results.

What impact is this having on high school students?

We are shooting ourselves in the foot. We have one of the highest high school drop out rates among advanced countries. One out of five Americans hasn’t got a high school diploma. Part of that is prison and pregnancy. But the single chief reason is that they failed high school math and dropped out in ninth or tenth grade. We have a tremendous amount of talent in all sorts of areas that isn’t being given a chance in high school or college because of the math barrier.

Does higher math help us understand other areas of life and enhance our understanding of the world?

I have a whole chapter in the book on mathematical models, which, by the way, brought us the recession of 2008. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors with these mathematical models. There was even one saying that if we sent a given number of troops into Iraq, they would come out and greet us and they would have a democracy in in three weeks.

Someone modeled that?

Oh, there are mathematicians in the basement of the Pentagon doing models on how to deal with ISIS. Some models work. Like pricing on airplanes, changing the price to get the planes full. They use models for that, and that’s good.

You are pretty hard on the popular notion that we need more hard math to fill a shortage of technical and math jobs.

The notion that there is now and will be a great shortage of workers with STEM credentials is a myth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics project how many people in various jobs will be needed in the next decade. About 5 percent of the labor force currently needs algebra or above in their jobs. They project over the next decade that this will go up to 5.2 percent. Most of those will be in advanced computer engineering. We will need fewer electrical engineers.

You say that most software coding doesn’t involve math at all.

People who do coding will tell you this. Go to Barnes and Noble and pick up “Programming for Dummies.” There is not a single mathematical equation in the whole book. In New York City, we have coding boot camps for people who want to change jobs — six weeks of intensive training, with no Algebra at all.

Aside from the modeling and smoke and mirrors, just in the abstract, does math help us understand the elegance of the world and our capacity to think abstractly?

The notion that people who study more math become more thoughtful is a total myth. Mathematicians are not brighter than the rest of us, no more incisive in their thinking. The logic, reasoning and rigor they learn applies to math itself, and does not carry to any other area. I’ve been looking for evidence that somehow people who study more math are generally smarter than the rest of us. And I can’t find it.

You say in your book that you actually tested this out.

I did a little exercise of my own, because I couldn’t find anyone else’s. I took the freshmen in my college and looked at their incoming math scores. I took the freshmen who took an introductory history course and plotted their math scores against their history grades. Correlation: zero.

Email: eschulzke@deseretnews.com

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