Food For Thought

Algebra for Everyone?
by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Contributing ColumnistProfessor, George Mason University

Some people think public education is sick and needs a good dose of antibiotics. Others are hoping to find a vaccine that will protect every student from any bad experiences associated with public education. Yes, we have no shortage of Jonas Salks who think they have the cure for today’s educational problems. I guess some readers may even consider this column in that category. I certainly don’t think I have the cure, only the desire to share with my readers some "Food for Thought." So here is a little cookie.

Food For ThoughtWho in the world ever came up with the idea that everyone needs a shot of algebra? We have placed some mystic aura around this mathematical offering and hypothesize that forcing all students to take it will better prepare them for life’s future challenges. I just happen to disagree. In high school I took Algebra I and II. Don’t know why, someone just said these courses were part of some diploma requirement. I believe it was called a scientific academic diploma. I can remember a student who sat next to me in algebra class, his name was Joel and he was a math whiz. He could calculate when the hands on a clock would pass one another or when a boat traveling upstream against given water current would arrive at the dock. I certainly had difficulty with working those kinds of problems or maybe I saw no need to know those things. You guessed it; my grades in the two courses weren’t very good.

I liked math back then and still like it today. The math I enjoyed learning had some real tangible purpose. I’ve taught electronics in high school and now teach basic statistics at the college level. I still haven’t found a good reason to factor a trinomial. During my high school teaching days many of the guidance counselors insisted on telling students they needed algebra as a prerequisite to taking my electronics class. I kept trying to inform the counselors that a good fundamental math course was all a student needed if they weren’t planning on becoming an engineer. All students need good fundamental math skills. Somehow we have lost all common sense when it comes to determining what math most of us need. Take time and list the mathematical-related things you did during the last three months. How much algebra did you use? Many educator friends will respond with the "it makes you think" argument. Tell me something that you do that doesn’t require thought. I do far more creative thinking in the bathroom than I ever did in algebra class.

Preach (and Teach) What You Practice

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to: jbonfadi@gmu.edu, or send written responses to the editor  or to John Bonfadini, 7500 Forrester Lane, Manassas, VA 20109.

The music industry has composers who provide the music to singers and musicians. Many great singers aren’t composers. They use music in a practical way — they sing. Why can’t we accept some students who use math in this same practical way? Somehow education has gotten snobbish. We look down on everyone who doesn’t fit the mold of a liberal arts college graduate. Shame on us. The state is now designing different diplomas to further classify students. If you take courses like algebra, you somehow get a better diploma than if you take electronics, auto mechanics, business, or other more practical courses. One has to ask why two different diplomas are needed. If your answer is that colleges need to know, well — colleges get a transcript, not a diploma. I can’t imagine that employers who have "HIRING" or "HELP WANTED" signs all over the place are looking for algebra on prospective employees’ transcripts. I only hope that someone has taught them how to count change so I can get through the line a little faster.

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the State Board of Education meeting. The Association of Mathematics Supervisors made a statement supporting algebra for everyone and condemning the teaching of consumer, general or technical math. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I hope they are not reflecting the sentiments of the state’s math teachers. Somehow all disciplines are fighting to look more academic. Even in my own area, vocational education, schools see more value in offering courses related to computer technology than the practical arts like masonry, auto mechanics, carpentry, electrician, air conditioning, electronics, and etc. My only question is, "Hasn’t anyone tried to get their automobile or air conditioning fixed?" We just need to take a little time to look at what really makes a difference in the quality of life. I know it’s not another course in algebra for everyone. I recently heard of a vocational administrator who justified supporting every student taking algebra because he was afraid vocational students who didn’t take the course would be considered second rate (I don’t want to use the "D" word). That’s a great educational strategy; sacrifice the child for an image.

I’ve seen this educational strategy used many times before. Just shuffle the required educational deck of courses. Can anyone remember the Sputnik days? Every child had to have more math and foreign language or the USA was doomed to fall to the evil empire. The "more algebra for everyone" strategy will do little to bring about real educational change. Compare adding an algebra course to making changes like reducing class sizes, providing teachers with clerical help, increasing funding for technology management tools, hiring more and better teachers, providing teachers with more professional development, increasing parent involvement with their child’s education, and the list goes on.

Let’s Fix the Real Problems

Requiring algebra of all students as a means of improving education is like calling in the real estate agent when your home’s plumbing is leaking, the roof needs repair, the paint is peeling off, the air conditioning has quit, and your dog has ruined all the carpet. It’s a perceived quick fix that doesn’t touch the real problems, just passes them on to another generation. Finally, whatever happened to the idea of designing programs for the individual child? I guess it’s just too difficult, so we’ll recommend cloning everyone to be someone’s educational ideal.

 

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