**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.
Who 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. |