Should Florida press high school students to pass Algebra 1? A response to Jac Wilder VerSteeg’s column in today’s Sun-Sentinel (My answer is “yes”, and VerSteeg’s is “no”)

Many Americans find themselves in economic distress, and many parents worry that their own children will have trouble making a good living when they finish school.  Nevertheless, there are excellent economic opportunities not just for students who complete bachelor’s degrees, but also for students who earn two-year college degrees and even high school degrees as long as they prepare themselves with skills that are in demand in our technological society. However, almost all of these lucrative opportunities require proficiency in math, including at least some skill in algebra.

Given all this, Jac Wilder VerSteeg’s April 1 Sun-Sentinel column (“Make kids take algebra, but don’t make them pass it”) made my heart sink. While refusing to acknowledge the importance of math in general and algebra in particular in providing the best economic opportunities to our students, VerSteeg made three classic errors in his argument.

First, VerSteeg said that some students just don’t have an “algebra gene” and that these students can’t learn math. While there are certainly some students with intellectual disabilities that prevent them from learning algebra, the vast majority of students are perfectly capable of learning at the Algebra 1 level with understanding. What each of these students need is a good teacher (and VerSteeg’s implication that there is a shortage of good math teachers is spot on) and what many of my colleagues in the education research business call a “growth mindset” – a belief that even if math seems difficult, it can be learned with hard work and perseverance. I generally hate these sweet phrases hatched by education researchers, but this one actually makes sense.

Second, VerSteeg argues that since he hasn’t used algebra in his career that today’s students will do fine without it. When I graduated from college in 1982, everybody who earned a bachelor’s degree – regardless of the field – pretty much had it made economically, at least in the short term. Most high school grads could do pretty well without any technical training. That picture has completely changed during the last thirty years: High school grads without technical training are mostly screwed economically, and even many new bachelor’s degree grads are not able to get any real traction in the job market. Acting as if the world hasn’t changed in the last thirty years – a mistake that VerSteeg and many parents are making – has dire consequences for today’s students.

Third, VerSteeg adopts a spurious argument from Andrew Hacker’s book (The Math Myth and other STEM Delusions) that since 95% of the present workforce does not use algebra that students shouldn’t be required to learn it. The fact that 95% of the present workforce doesn’t and can’t use algebra skills is one of the factors driving the decline of America’s middle class. Those with strong algebra skills are – on the average – doing better than those without those skills. We need to push students hard to learn algebra so that they have the best chance to succeed in life, and so that we can halt the hollowing-out of the nation’s middle class.

Florida should not give up on insisting that students learn algebra. Instead, we should address the point on which VerSteeg was completely correct – Florida doesn’t have enough strong math teachers.  We need to do whatever it takes to recruit more college graduates with strong math skills to teaching careers. That will open the door of economic opportunity for the generation of Floridians now in our schools.

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