Friday, February 17, 2006

Algebra is not negotiable 

I had wanted to write something about the discussion Bill Polley is having on the uses of math and students distaste and disrespect for it. He cites a CNN report saying that both parents and teachers don't think math and science are all that important, and that there's little clamor for the types of reforms many are proposing. Bill comments,
Calculus is negotiable. Basic math and science competency is not. Ability to do estimation and mental arithmetic is not negotiable.

He sees the problem as people "thinking math is arithmetic." In a followup he writes:
Basic competency in math and science is now, and will continue to be, necessary for people who want to be flexible enough to survive in an ever changing job market.

Asking students what skills they need is rather silly, because they haven't yet reached a level of knowledge about the world to make informed judgments. (I say the same thing about general education requirements in college, by the way -- which some people will take as elitist. I answer that I'm a professional hired to make those decisions in concert with 700 other faculty.)

I would write more about this, but my attention is averted by Richard Cohen in this morning's WaPo, in an early contender for stupidest column of the year. (Non-Monkey, you have work to do.) Writing about the Los Angeles' school requirement of algebra (we discussed it here), Cohen says it would be better to keep kids in school and skip algebra.
You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know -- never mind want to know -- how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later -- or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note -- or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

PZ Myers gives Cohen a great and good dose of Thomas Jefferson, and notes:
Algebra is not about calculating the answer to basic word problems: it's about symbolic reasoning, the ability to manipulate values by a set of logical rules. It's basic stuff�I know many students struggle with it, but it's a minimal foundation for understanding mathematics and everything in science. Even more plainly, it's a basic requirement for getting into a good college...

Now, we in economics have debates over how much math students should know. And we do negotiate over calculus. But "the ability to manipulate values by a set of logical rules" is not negotiable. If we wish to have a workforce that can compete globally, we must have workers who can think about values and symbols and perform some analysis on them. Cohen, alas, I think actually does this without knowing how it is he learned the skill. Somewhere, there's an algebra teacher he hasn't thanked yet.