Sunday, August 5, 2012

Algebra Isn't the Issue: A Response to "Is Algebra Necessary?"

I have a knack for being fashionably late with chiming in on controversial happenings. Responding to Dr. Andrew Hacker's op-ed piece, "Is Algebra Necessary?" is certainly no exception here.

There have been numerous responses around the blogosphere on this topic already from my fellow math teachers. Dan Willingham posted a particularly well-constructed rebuttal the day after the column was published. The uproar from the math education community comes as no surprise, nor does Dr. Hacker's cheeky response to the outpouring of criticism.

I could certainly dive into the fracas and expound upon the merits of teaching algebra while lamenting the current state of math education under the shadow of No Child Left Behind, but I think a more important issue may be getting lost in the conversation.

In this clip from Monday's episode of CNN's Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien, Dr. Steve Perry of Capital Preparatory Magnet School (Hartford, CT), in discussing Hacker's column, tells O'Brien that algebra "does present a real barrier" for students that come from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Perry goes on to refer to algebra as a "gatekeeper," citing a "one-size-fits-all" approach to the academic experience that is detrimental to cultivating success for all students. He asserts that children need experiences that they can be "more connected to" while emphasizing rigor, relationships, and relevance.

Judging by their reactions, O'Brien and co-panelist Margaret Hoover seemed to think Perry was taking Hacker's position that teaching algebra wasn't necessary. Indeed, when one watches this video for the first time, it certainly sounds like Perry agrees with Hacker in many respects.

Hoover seemed particularly incensed, jumping on Perry and pointing out that learning algebra has benefits for developing critical thinking skills that are vital to students later on in life.

That wasn't Perry's point, though. He notes that "it's 2012" and asks the question, "why are we teaching the same things the way we've always taught them?"

The point is this: The problem is not the fact that students are failing algebra. The problem is that we're not doing enough to address why they're failing algebra.

Perry touches on what I think the major underlying issue is with the growing number of students that are struggling with algebra: It's not that algebra is too hard or unnecessary. It's that students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are not getting the support they need throughout their childhood to be equipped for academic success.

This excerpt from Hacker's editorial reveals a surprising lapse of understanding of the issue on his part:

Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white. In New Mexico, 43 percent of white students fell below “proficient,” along with 39 percent in Tennessee.

This is a rather odd thing to read, coming from the same man who wrote a New York Times #1 bestseller on racial inequality in America. For instance, he only mentions how white students performed on these state standardized tests; though he mentions black students in this passage, he doesn't even bother to mention how they performed, perpetuating an image that black students are incapable of performing as well as white students.  This is an egregious and irresponsible omission.

Equally troubling is the fact that Hacker seems to link being white with being affluent in the same fashion. He makes no distinction between how well low-income students performed on these tests compared to students who are not from low-income households. Yet this seems like an important distinction to make, particularly in the case of Tennessee which has a high population of economically disadvantaged students.

To be fair, comparison data between economic subgroups is not always readily available. The 2011 Tennessee Department of Education Report Card, for instance -- where Hacker got his "39 percent" figure -- provides a disaggregation of test performance data describing participation and results from various subgroups. However, this does not include students from non-low-income households.

That's not too much of a problem, though. We can determine how non-low-income students performed by utilizing basic set theory and a bit of -- gasp! -- algebra. We can then use this information to get a pretty good idea of how many of the "39 percent" of white students that scored below proficiency were also economically disadvantaged.

Taking the time to do some number-crunching, one can determine the following from the data provided by the Tennessee DOE (all figures are from 2011):

  • About 443,720 students in total scored below proficiency in math.
  • About 318,381 of these students were economically disadvantaged.
  • About 262,352 of these students were white; 181,368 students were not.

With these numbers, we can find some overlap between the white subgroup and the economically disadvantaged subgroup:

  • Suppose all 181,368 non-white students who scored below proficiency were also economically disadvantaged. If we remove them from the 318,381 economically disadvantaged students that scored below proficiency, there would be 137,013 students left over.
  • This means that, at minimum, 137,013 economically disadvantaged students that scored below proficiency were also white.
  • In other words, more than half (at least 52.2%) of the 262,352 white students in Tennessee that failed to meet proficiency in math were economically disadvantaged.

This is an extremely conservative estimate, as it assumes every non-white student that didn't meet proficiency also came from an economically disadvantaged background (an unrealistic assumption, if not completely absurd). In other words, the actual number of economically disadvantaged white students in Tennessee that didn't meet proficiency in math is most likely much higher. There is a considerable performance gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers.

So, intentional or not, Hacker downplays the plight of economically disadvantaged students with his unqualified claim that algebra presents a burdensome obstacle for students regardless of their ethnic or economic background.

This is an incredibly unfortunate oversight, because the truth is that poverty is a major factor in determining a child's preparedness to succeed in school. If Hacker wants to talk about an "onerous stumbling block for all students," he shouldn't be discussing algebra. He should be discussing poverty, which is independent of race (Burney & Beilke, 2008) and perhaps the root cause of many students' failures to complete high school. It is a major issue that warrants our attention and discussion.

Students who come from economically disadvantaged households have parents who not only have low incomes, but often a lower level of education than parents from other households. Both of these are indicators of how likely a student is to be successful in school (Davis-Kean, 2005). Such students are less likely to value education and to have the necessary resources at home to prepare them to succeed in their academic pursuits.

Many economically disadvantaged students live in concentrated urban settings that do not always attract high-quality teachers, further diminishing their chances of academic success (Burney & Beilke, 2008).

On top of this, poverty is often viewed as being an "individual problem," associated with laziness, apathy, amorality, lawlessness, poor parenting and a lack of education (Bullock, 2006). This stigma is an incredible barrier for economically disadvantaged students, particularly when their teachers accept this stigma as reality.

There is truth in what Dr. Perry said about algebra being a barrier for students from historically disadvantaged groups. None of the factors described above bode well for a student's ability to succeed in their K-12 education, let alone in algebra.

Blaming algebra for the failure of these students to graduate from high school or finish an undergraduate degree is like blaming the 20th mile for a one-legged runner's failure to finish a marathon. We shouldn't be addressing whether or not the 20th mile is too hard, we should be addressing the fact that the runner is missing a leg.

So before we question whether or not algebra is necessary, we should be questioning whether or not we, as a society, are doing everything we can to equip all of our students to be successful in their K-12 education. All students need equitable access to the support and resources necessary to successfully complete their education. Facing this challenge must be a priority if we really want our students to realize their potential.

In the meantime, we must also heed Dr. Perry's call to emphasize rigor, relationships, and relevance in our classrooms. We are going to continue getting students that are ill-prepared for educational success, and we are going to need to be creative to support their needs. This requires getting to know our students: what their interests are and how they learn. Doing so equips us to provide such students with opportunities for meaningful, authentic learning experiences that can capture their attention, connect new knowledge to old, and help them see the value in what they're learning.

For the record, I do think teaching algebra is necessary; but that's not the issue here.

Bullock, H. (2006). Justifying inequality: A social psychological analysis of beliefs about poverty and the poor (National Poverty Center Working Paper Series #06-08). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan. Retrieved August 4, 2012, from

Burney, V.H. & Beilke, J.R. (2008). The constraints of poverty on high achievement. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 31(3), 295-321.

Davis-Kean, P.E. (2005). The influence of parent education and family income on child achievement: The indirect role of parental expectations and the home environment. Journal of Family Psychology, 19(2), 294-304.

1 comment:

  1. Very well stated. I believe Hacker didn't fully address economic disparity as a cause for this great rift, instead placing the blame at the feet of algebra. If the American socioeconomic situation was less divided, I truly believe students would finally be on "equal" ground (to say nothing of other factors).