Why is Algebra So Challenging to Students? (1)

11/13/2013

Before I start to discuss this question, I would like to say that I have great empathy with Andrew Hacker's 3-page article which was published a year ago. In his article "Is Algebra Necessary?" written for the New York Times, Prof. Hacker used a wide range of data to support his argument that algebra (and also geometry and calculus) should not be an ordeal that all American students should be subjected to.


A senior math teacher at the City University of New York as he is, Prof. Hacker seemed to be pretty sympathetic to most students struggling with algebra throughout their school years. The first argument he made was that making math mandatory prevent the nation from discovering and developing young talents. Statistics showed that one ninth of American 9th Graders dropped out of school, and poor math grades had been a main reason for the dropouts. Two university systems in California admitted only those students who had learnt algebra for three years or more, which Prof. Hacker believed to have excluded quite a number of applicants who were talented in subjects such as history and arts. Moreover, some medical schools required all their applicants to have good-looking calculus records, regardless of the fact that calculus was not at all included in the schools' clinical curriculum. Besides Ivy League members, even some mediocre universities demanded an SAT math 700+ for applicants. As is stated by Prof. Hacker, math was used as a "totem" to impress outsiders and to elevate a school or profession's status.


Although many suggest that we should not imply the idea "Algebra is difficult" to students, the fact is that algebra is challenging indeed to the majority of students. In middle schools and high schools, many students have to take the online math course for several (up to five) times and they still cannot get a pass. The main impediment to university graduation is also freshman math. Prof. Hacker said that at the City University of New York where he has been working for decades, around 57% of the students failed in mandated algebra.


When it comes to why algebra is so frustrating for many students, the education system, the contents of math courses together with math tutors can all be reasons. For one thing, most schools adopt a math curriculum that focuses on "pure algebra", which is differentiated from "applied algebra" in daily life. In such an education system, what one learns at school fails to have a connection to what is required on his or her job. For another thing, maybe people have not realized the fact that they do not really demand that many algebra-proficient workers as they have believed to do after years of exclaiming "we are in a shortage of math talents". According to a Georgetown Center analysis, only 5% entry-level workers would need to be proficient in algebra or above in the decade, wrote Prof. Hacker. Math, for most people, is a mountain so high that they can only look up at. Though the subject is referred to by some as "the poetry of the universe", still the vast majority of us fail to see the beauty of such "poetry".


Personally speaking, math (algebra, geometry, and other branches) is a subject that I can never develop a passion for. The last time I got a full mark in a math exam is in primary school. I topped in English (as a foreign language), history and all other arts-related courses in middle school and high school, but math had been a constant drag for me in exams over those years. People believe that one can improve logical thinking by doing math practice, but I really did not know what to do when my mother returned from a parents' meeting one day and repeated to me what my math teacher had said to her about me: "She is good at logical thinking but she needs to improve problem solving skills." For me, math is really a torment. I have a good memory and can read and write well, learn a foreign language fast, and think in a logical way, but I simply cannot work out advanced math problems.


(Go on to read the rest part: Why is Algebra So Challenging to Students? (2))

(Picture: Adam Hayes for the New York Times)

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