First, let me say that this Nicholson Baker article already starts off wrong by not discussing al-Khwarizmi’s contributions to algebra, mainly NAMING it.

Secondly, this conversation about math reminds me of the conversation we had about Andrew Hacker’s article last year. Here’s another guy who ostensibly doesn’t have a focus in any math-related subjects trying to reform math by limiting how much math students get. I wonder if he thinks similarly of English, and whether kids should have to read anything above *Romeo & Juliet*, and not *Macbeth* or *Othello*. Or the script to the Leonardo DiCaprio version of the movie. Or the manual to the VCR that once played the movie.

As far as I can see, higher-level literacy isn’t that necessary to the average citizen, either. Or do we not place the same restrictions on literacy as we do on math?

More importantly, I’m inclined to agree with Dana Goldstein on this: those who get higher-order math may fall along socioeconomic lines. Those in the higher rungs of society will get Algebra 2 plus whatever other math will assure they can apply to technical careers or other careers of their choosing. Those in the lower rungs (an increasing section, mind you) will be relegated to algebra 1, and courses like, “Using A Calculator To Plot A Graph” or some other nonsense.

I’m adamant about access and the opportunity for *all* students to get access to the most information possible. Do I think math needs reform? Absolutely. Do I think eliminating algebra 2 as a bridge towards that is the way to go? Absolutely not. This will take a concerted effort from educators (specifically K-12) to reconsider what needs to get taught across the board. I know the Common Core Learning Standards were *supposed* to do that, but I’m unconvinced as of now.

If someone said, “Let’s end compulsory higher-order math tomorrow,” and the fallout happens across racial, gender, class lines, then I could be convinced that this was a step towards reform. Yet, given the state of what our culture thinks about math right now, in all of our school systems, I can’t risk the idea that our lowest-income schools don’t have access to the same knowledge that their higher-income level counterparts do.

What do you think?

**Mr. Vilson**

### About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book *This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education*, on sale now.

## Comments 23

I never heard a student ask a social studies or English teacher (or Phys Ed teacher!) “How will I use this in later life?” I did hear this frequently when I taught math. The problem with math is most math teachers do not make the subject interesting. I do not believe this is their fault, though. Math is perceived (and taught) as a series of techniques and algorithms, with little to no real life connection. Typical problems are developed simply to assess whether or not the student has mastered those techniques and algorithms. The pressures of high stakes testing and false accountability (e.g., if a student has mastered a technique, frequently without understanding, and can apply it in a rote fashion he/she is deemed to have learned it) prevent math teachers from spending the time needed for understanding. I like sites such as Mathalicious (www.mathalicious.com) which are trying to provide interesting ways of looking at math.

To get back to the point of your post, I believe if math were taught in a more interesting manner, as many English and social studies teacher approach their subjects, the societal view (and common disdain) for math might change. The algorithms and techniques may take on more relevance if the applications were situated in the lives of the learner, interesting, compelling.

Dear Jose,

Thanks, again, for shaking me awake.

I shared my thoughts here.

Any time somebody says “the problem with math is…”

It’s not the same problem for everybody. Yes, the “connect it to life” is a big one — but as you noted, most people ( though I certainly did) don’t ask ” when will I use this?” (Therefore, don’t expect me to try to learn it). Math skills are *so* much more likely to be actually used… and as JLV noted, too often higher math turns into “life skills” math, and doors to rather a lot of educational and career pathways are wedged more tightly shut.

Another problem is that math (and academic success) is taught with a particular kind of code, and if you’re in the ‘right’ demographics, you learn that code. Once they know some secret passwords that you don’t, you end up not understanding much of what’s going on, so you do the best you can to learn the ones they’re teaching where you are — but you’re missing … the basics.

We did a little diagnostic on our pre-pre-algebra students yesterday. I’d say about half of ’em thought that 1/8 was either greater than or equal to .8 (I don’t know if they’d have done better if we’d said 0.8 .) They are absolutely not incapable of understanding the concepts there, but… they don’t know the code.

Our goal is, instead of trying to teach them the code using code they don’t know (and tell them ever so quickly why 1/8 is less than 0.8, and then slap them with 50 problems in “higher math” so that the misconception is still firmly entrenched), to find a way to uproot the dandelion misconceptions down to the taproots.

Re: Here’s another guy who ostensibly doesn’t have a focus in any math-related subjects trying to reform math by limiting how much math students get.

Jose,

I didn’t read Baker’s piece this way. I found it pretty compelling. I don’t think he was trying to limit how much math students receive. But rather, making Algebra 2 and advanced math electives, rather than compulsory gate keepers to college. How many more gates to kids need?

Why not Philosophy? Chinese? Both very interesting and important if the student is interested. Baker seems to favor compulsory first year Algebra. Then make it interest-driven.

What Mike said. He beat me to it.

My bad, xiousgeonz, I should of course had said “A problem with math is…” or maybe “A problem with math instruction is…”

Okay, a line got sliced from that — most people don’t question the value of history & other courses…

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As Baker suggested, why can’t we have electives that are sort of equivalent to Algebra 2? Why is it that Algebra 2 is a must? Can’t students study programming languages, logic, and even advanced art and music theory and get the same take away? Is it that we want our students to know Algebra 2 or that we want them to be able to analyze the world with a certain level of presence of mind?

I would have to argue that when somone is forced to study something they feel is oppressive, the feeling of choice, or having options is quite limiting. Some may argue that it is good for us to persevere in the face of a challenge, but why not do that with something that you have more of an affinity with? The face of mastery stays the same, whether we do it with something we like or with something we don’t like. But, you are more likely to master something when is resonates with your path.

Mr. Vilson,

I have been a math educator for 20 years, including 9 teaching HS & now a university professor. Your post reminds me of a challenge I have felt especially during the last ten years of my career as I begun questioning deeply the direct harm compulsory maths education has on children and adults. If Algebra (or math more generally) is a gatekeeper as Bob Moses says, do we figure how to get ALL kids through the gate, or do we kick down the gate.

I have become a kick down the gate advocate. I hear so many people advocate the other notion that I keep my ideas in check. But, here they are, in essence. Similar to Grant Wiggins, I suggest the majority of the content that is defined to be HS math is very particular, and very dead, eurocentric, patriarchal, worthless–except as a tool by which to keep people from passing through whichever get comes next. However, i do strongly believe that rigorous mathematical learning should be a part of at minimum 3 years of a child’s HS coursework.

Trying to remain brief and on point, the comment above next demands a response to what mathematics ought to be taught in HS, to all kids. I have two strong beliefs about that. First and foremost, it doesn’t matter. It should be modern and relevant to the current life of the child, not a future life/job. A well prepared mathematics instructor ought to have a strong repertoire of living mathematics and understand how to engage kids in logico-mathematical reasoning, appropriate to their age (to channel Piaget). Second, as much as the curriculum might be defined in advance by the teacher, through their understanding of what this disciplinary knowledge to be learned might be, what is actually learned is and will always be something different, the child’s mathematics. Schools FAIL miserably in recognizing that each and everyone of us fabricate our own ways of thinking and knowing the world. This leads to an interpretation of standards that aligns much more closely to “all kids must think like this” — which is dangerous.

Two last thoughts. First, the teaching of another “classic” and dead, eurocentric,… discipline seems to have passed without the world coming to an end–Latin. I say the same is necessary for Math, namely roughly 80% of what constitutes the HS curriculum as it has been defined by default for well over a century, and currently by the CCSS. Second, I think this young man expresses well how schools communicate “you must think and be this one type of person, or you’re worthless.” http://youtu.be/oz1Ts1g1vrw

… I think it would be a valid exercise to ask for proof that our current version of math education in HS is different from teaching Latin. Makes me want to go find the folks defending keeping it in the curriculum and see if their arguments have a similar ring to the ones connected with math (“they learn to think logically and solve problems!” — to which I say, KINDLY give me some remote fragment of evidence that that’s what’s happening, because the students I work with learn to perform symbolic rituals and work the system to pass the course).

Just saw thie intersting Gallup poll, entitled “Americans Grade Math as the Most Valuable School Subject.” It’s here http://www.gallup.com/poll/164249/americans-grade-math-valuable-school-subject.aspx

I never would have guessed the results.

My math classes as a student worked like this: Walk in, grade homework in class, feel like a failure, move on to next skill. I took Algebra 2, but not so’s I’d notice. The idea that moving a top-level math class to an elective won’t change anything for anybody; it’s the disconnected, schedule-based approach to math we specialize in here in the the US that’s the problem.

And for those of you who haven’t been asked what the point of literature classes are, you must not be teaching those courses.

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Math is a language so expose your kids early and often. Make it fun and exciting. Math is in everything so stop teaching it in isolation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCuXiujC3KE

I have become a “why can’t the kids dance through the gate” advocate. And I know the answer, “because we don’t teach them.” I teach at the high school level. The number of children who can’t multiply, and have no idea how to add a negative number is frightening. This is not algebra’s fault. Or the curriculum’s fault. We don’t teach our kids the basics, and to mastery, at the early stages of the game. It’s not a surprise that they want to quit by high school. The adults who know better need to fix this. We are losing a generation (again…) This can be done at the elementary level. Can you figure out how?

It sounds like you need to figure out what to do with the students you have now :(

I started a grassroots movement to get parents more involved with educating there kids before they even go to school. Teachers can only do their best with what parents send them. Parents have to do more and this book is helping them to do just that.

In general, I believe that more people should take higher math courses. Mathematical literacy is vital in our technological world, and a comfort with numbers and abstract reasoning is almost as important as being able to read and write. Increasingly students are held back from graduating or progressing through college because of struggles they’ve experienced with abstract math, namely Algebra 1 and 2. This is not the fault of either Algebra, but rather those responsible for educating students in Algebra. The instruction is in need of reform. Getting rid of the course requirements altogether is a white flag, but dealing with the root instructional problems is more likely to lead to improvement.

Algebra is not a required course so that students get good jobs, and it is not taught because it is useful for every day to day life. It is my perspective that Algebra is taught and emphasized as a pivotal course because it should be a vehicle used to develop a way of thinking and interpreting the world through mathematical modeling. Analyzing the world quantitatively and being able to take a question, identify needed information, work through relevant mathematics to produce a useful result, and translating that result to the context of the initial question or problem is what Algebraic modeling and thinking is all about.

Making these higher math courses electives heightens the risk that students of color and in lower income households take those math courses. This widens the achievement and opportunity gaps in our society which continues to perpetuate a multi tiered education that falls on socio economic lines. Instead Algebra 2 schools be mandatory for all students, but it should also be interesting and meaningful for students. All math classes should be taught in a relevant and engaging manner to foster student creativity and curiosity as they develop their problem solving skills. That should the focus of widespread reform because that is the most direct way of improving math literacy for all students.

THanks for this being here – it’s comin’ ’round on the guitar again and I can just link to here.