The study of mathematics, the overarching subject dealing with numbers, manipulation of amounts, rates, and other numerical concepts, has existed for thousands of years. From the ancient Greeks and Arabians who first pioneered fundamental mathematical concepts, to more modern application of math in the fields of finance and engineering, math is a pervasive and necessary science. Recently, a subtopic of math, the algebra that is being taught during secondary education in the United States, has been a topic of debate among educators, mathematicians, and researchers. One side questions the utility of teaching middle and high school students algebra while the other defends the existing curriculum or, at the very least, defends the idea of teaching algebra itself. By analyzing both arguments and the evidence presented by each side, it is clear that the inclusion of algebra in secondary education is occupationally unnecessary, detrimental to students, not required for transfer.
One of the biggest complaints that students in K-12 education have, whether genuine or snarkily said, is that the material being taught will never be applicable to them after they complete their education. Most subjects, however, do offer benefit to the majority of people. Reading comprehension, arithmetic skills, and oral and written communication are invaluable as they are necessary for most aspects of life. This is not the case for algebra. Hacker (2012) writes in his essay for the New York Times that, “a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above” (p. 3-4). While algebra may be necessary for a few specialized professions, the vast majority will find that they use algebra only in school. Even employees in fields that fall into the STEM category find themselves using only arithmetic. While the creation of these fields and the various breakthroughs in them may have relied on various theorems of formulas, the everyday employee in these fields will not need to know the algebraic tools to perform his job. For example, Dudley (2010) states, “the Florida DoT uses Riemann sums to determine the area of irregular plots of land… I asked the speaker what mathematical preparation the DoT expects in its new hires. The answer was, none at all” (p. 609). The idea that algebra is some sort of miracle solution for people working in every field is categorically false. For example, doctors will have general guidelines based on patient characteristics that they will follow to determine the correct dosage of medication; they will not be made to calculate it by hand. In the same way, chemists will have tables with the values of chemical constants. While an understanding of arithmetic is necessary for these occupations, not much more is needed. Moreover, the idea that algebra is necessary for all careers is an outdated one. Those who support the inclusion of algebra in secondary education like to cite the example of Al-Khwarizmi, the 9th-century mathematician who introduced algebra to the world and his occupational applications of algebra as a way to help the workers of the time approach their problems in a new and more numerical way (Devlin, 2016). This may be true, but it does not account for the countless advances in technology that workers of today have at their disposal; quantitative information required for a job is typically provided, so employees simply have to ‘plug-in’ numbers into tables-something that can hardly be called algebra. Nor does it account for the fact that the workers of today typically are not looking for a new way to solve a task. The argument against including algebra in school curriculum not only stands for the fact that algebra is unnecessary; algebra can also pose a detriment to students’ education.
Teaching algebra in schools can pose significant challenges for students. At a lower level, algebra taught in school is the class with the highest failure rates. The purpose of school in the United States is to offer a complete and diverse education to create more well-rounded individuals. Institutions of education should be a place where students hone their academic skills in a wide variety of topics, become socialized, and learn valuable lessons. This cannot occur if students repeatedly fail higher-level math courses, stunting educational development. Schools also cannot fulfill their obligation ton students if students drop out due to higher level math. According to Hacker (2012), “…one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school… Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason” (p. 2). The American education system is failing students. As education for many remains the only gateway to a better life, there should be more done to help students to succeed. Algebra has become an educational hurdle that American teenagers must pass in order to have access to higher education and then a career later in life, an occupational trajectory that likely will never see the use of mathematics higher than arithmetic. The educational hurdle that is algebra does not just limit students at the secondary level either. Those in the transition between high school and college often face the challenge of high standards well beyond that of a passing requirement required by most colleges on math portions of the SAT (Hacker, 2012). Algebra continues to limit students in college as well. Those who coordinated the effort to implement algebra in schools may have meant for students to students to gain a deeper appreciation of math, but appreciating math can only come after grasping the concept, which many students fail to do.