Algebra can be taught, but it’ll cost you…

January 29, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

If algebra is so important for our school kids to learn why aren’t most adults knowledgeable in it? Why is it so hard to find teachers competent to teach it?

Math teaching or lack of it is a pet peeve of mine – one I will likely take to the grave.

What brings the subject up this time is an article by political columnist Thomas Elias that mentions that a California Superior Court judge has blocked a controversial plan aimed at requiring all of the state’s school children to be tested in algebra in the eighth grade at the latest. While the article does not explain what the consequences of failing are, I’m sure it would mean kids flunking and/or schools losing funding.

But that, what the consequences are, is not my concern. My concern is this sudden push to get all kids to learn algebra when for decades most have not and grew up to be adults who still did not and nothing has been done to rectify the situation, if indeed it needs rectifying. I graduated from high school in 1967 after taking nothing more than general math (adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing) as a freshman. Yes, about two decades later I had to pass intermediate algebra to get a four-year college degree, and if I had been a little quicker at getting that degree I would not have been required to do that.

Some of us find math difficult. And if no one will teach it to us and if no one even requires that we learn it, then chances are we won’t learn it (and I was finally fortunate enough to have some first-rate math teachers at the community college level).

I personally think math is extremely important and I think any educated person ought to at least be able to master intermediate algebra and probably more. I have noted, however, that most adults who have taken algebra often faintly recall it as an unpleasant memory, something they worked hard to master and then immediately forgot (even those who liked it, usually admit they forgot it). I think, however, they learned something along the way and probably subconsciously developed a somewhat better understanding of the relationship of numbers. For one, you work with a lot of fractions in algebra.

The afore mentioned judge apparently realized you can’t just mandate that math instruction will happen from a court bench and it will magically be done. The will of the public and the will of the taxpayers (which really are one) has to be there, and the will of the education establishment has to be there too.

And most any math teacher I am sure would tell you that education has to begin early and can’t let up.

I have seen that at least a lot, if not all, schools these days are attempting to introduce higher forms and /or more complex forms of math at much earlier ages. How well they do this, though, is dependent upon the knowledge of the instructors available.

Usually in the lower elementary grades pupils have only one teacher who has to teach multiple subjects.

When I was in my late 30s I was sitting in a community college class taking introduction to algebra and sitting next to me was a kindly old woman who was a veteran school teacher. She had to master rudimentary algebra to pass a state teachers’ test, one that was just then being mandated. And, really, the level she had to pass was barely algebra (I know. I later took that test and it was easy, believe me – I did not become a teacher, though). No offense to her, but why was she allowed to teach children arithmetic all those years when she was lacking in proficiency herself? And that my friends is why we are still trying to figure out how to get our children to learn algebra.

(I was taught what probably was third or fourth grade level arithmetic in high school by a gym teacher. My oldest daughter had an athletic coach for a high school algebra teacher, who refused to help his students ; maybe he didn’t know the subject himself.)

I have observed enough now at age 59 to believe that a working knowledge of some level of algebra would be quite valuable for all adults. It’s not the algebraic method itself as much as the need to understand math (which you do when you master some level of algebra) that rules so much of our life, from using recipes to cook at home, to doing home repairs, to balancing our check books, to figuring out how much interest we are paying or are receiving, to understanding the wonders of science, to master job skills and so on. Without that understanding we are all at the mercy of those who do. And please don’t tell me all that you need is a computer or hand-held calculator (garbage in, garbage out).

But if it is so important, then why have we not built up our math instruction after all these years?

It’s partly a question of money. Those who allocate the funds and some taxpayers don’t want to admit that it takes some expertise to master and teach the subject, so in that way they can avoid paying the bill.

P.s.  So, do I remember any algebra? Not too much. Do I have a solution to the math teaching problem if there is one? Maybe: Math may be challenging enough that we need single subject specialists to be introduced into the lower grades. Also, while adequately training current teachers who may be deficient in the subject may be problematical, certainly we must up the standards for those going into teaching. If the standards become too high and the pay is seen as too low, it will be difficult to recruit new teachers. Legislators and school boards will have to figure out what they want and whether they are willing to pay for it. Simply paying existing teachers more without requiring that they demonstrate proficiency will not work. I took the California teachers test, known as CBEST, many years ago. Hopefully, they have strengthened it. When I took it, you only had to demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of arithmetic (using some basic algebra) to pass. Had the test of been adequate, I would not have passed it.

And finally, my apologies to any teachers or former teachers who might read this and think I am criticizing them. There are a lot of good and qualified teachers out there – just not enough.