I am going to be kind here and not go with my initial dismissive assessment that this idea, is one of many recurring ideas in public education, that seeks to bring “negative tracking” through the back door, since the front door is being watched, somewhat. I will treat this as a serious proposal. After spending most of my adult life in public education, I am instinctively inclined to ask a lot of questions whenever “help”, is being proposed, and specifically being proposed to help poor students, “struggling students”, and students of color. Any goal of expanding the graduation capacity of high schools is great; but it seems that too often the public education traditional response for adding more students to the graduation rolls, is to subtract courses, “soften” requirements and, lower the level of rigor; not improve the learning capabilities of students.
First, no one, (including I hope the proposers) is in disagreement about the role of algebra as a major “gatekeeper” for pursuing a future STEM career. Who then will serve in our schools as gatekeepers of the “gatekeeper” when advising students to pursue, or not pursue an “algebra track” math program? If history is a guide, I would be very wary as a parent of color to assume that all students will be advised properly and fairly.
And we know in high school when it comes to “college major readiness” that we are juggling the two variables of: courses successfully taken, as well as time. As a Dean of a School of Engineering once told me: “Our first math course is “calculus for engineers”; this course assumes that calculus was taken in high school.” And so if a student does not decide to take algebra in the 9th grade how is it that they are going to be able to realistically get to calculus by the 12th grade? Too many students by virtue of living in the wrong “zip code”, are already at a STEM disadvantage when competing with those students who were able to take algebra in the 8th grade. Besides, I have met many 10th or 11th graders, who after visiting a science research lab, going on a college tour, participating with a Robotics team, decided that the STEM path was what they seriously wanted to pursue.
Now, I have often seen and cringed when I read some of those widely trending social media posts that proclaim: “I never had to use the Pythagorean Theorem in my everyday life!” But these understandably (not written by professional educators) misguided affirmations missed the entire point of all education, and specifically education relating to science and mathematics. What a student should take away from a high school science and mathematics course is not just the theorems, or “laws and principles”. But rather an approach, process, a method of thinking, a systemic problem posing-solving view of the world; learning to be inquisitive, and to be able to make sense of the STEM events in the world that directly impact everyday citizens. Every student is not going to pursue a professional STEM career; but every person in society must be able to function with some degree of STEM literacy, or they will become victims and/or subject to the misinformation and exploitation of those who purport to speak as STEM experts. If this 2016 presidential election has taught us anything, it is that the lack of literacy and awareness in any subject area will lead to the most simplistic, racist, bigoted, and uninformed solutions to very complex problems. The study of mathematics suggests that problem-solving is connected to the creative and thoughtful development of appropriate algorithms; not prejudicial/subjective emotions. There is no accident that one candidate’s core constituency are in his braggadocio’s words: “The highly uneducated!”
I would ask the “remove algebra” folks to return to the drawing board and address my concerns before continuing their campaign. Especially the question of which students get selected to take algebra; what is the criteria, and who is in charge of the selection process? I would further say, that if they truly want to increase the graduation rate, and algebra is a hurdle in achieving that goal (I personally think it is a little more complex than that, however); then why not increase the mathematical learning capabilities of students in the K-8 world. After all, we already know how to accomplish that based on the large number of students who are presently able to successfully complete algebra in the eighth grade. And so algebra is a stretch for high school students? There is no unknown (X) in this “remove H.S. algebra requirement movement” equation; the solution will result in the least politically protected children of our society being zeroed out of a future STEM career.