"Is algebra necessary?" Andrew Hacker, in a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, argued that it isn't, provoking a storm of reaction from math teachers in particular and educators in general. To be fair, once you read past the attention-g rabbing headline, Hacker points out that his "... question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus." His main points seemed to be that a misplaced focus on rigor leads to kids dropping out and that math taught in schools has little relation to skills needed for success in the workforce. (Hacker) He closes by stating "I want to end on a positive note" and calling for the creation of exciting new courses such as "Citizen Statistics."
Dan Willingham, a well-known cognitive science professor at the University of Virginia, wrote an excellent response, "Yes, Algebra is necessary" which also quickly spread among online educators. He argues in part that the issue is less the math curriculum itself and more how it is taught. Given the impossibility of truly teaching every single skill that every single student will need for success in life, "The best bet for knowledge that can apply to new situations is an abstract understanding--seeing that apparently different problems have a similar underlying structure. And the best bet for students to gain this abstract understanding is to teach it explicitly... But the explicit teaching of abstractions is not enough. You also need practice in putting the abstractions into concrete situations."
Many math teachers I know agree that we need to take a look at the standard mathematics sequence in this country. To the best of my knowledge, we are one of the only countries that doesn't teach math in an integrated fashion, separating Geometry out into its own course. You can definitely argue students should graduate with certain "life skills" in math such as managing personal finances. And there is certainly reason for students to learn basic statistics and related critical thinking skills. But to proceed from a careful discussion of these and other ideas within a standard curriculum to running the risk of implicitly creating a two track system raises serious questions. As Willingham puts it, "Finally, there is the question of income distribution; countries with a better educated populace show smaller income disparity, and suggesting that not everyone needs to learn math raises the question of who will learn it."
At Stoneleigh-Burnham, beyond doing the best possible job of teaching math, we also have the responsibility to encourage our students as girls and young women to overcome stereotypes. The percentage of women majoring and seeking careers in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) fields has remained consistently low over the last decade (see for example this government report). Yet, as Randie Benedict, Head of the all-girls Ellis School, observed in an excellent op-ed piece, "Girls can do just fine in math, thank you." Her opinion piece echoes findings listed in a recent report in The Educated Reporter by Emily Richmond, "Girls and STEM Education: Still Waiting for Liftoff." What do they recommend?
We can begin by fighting gender bias - all of us. That means not just encouraging the girls themselves but also, especially for women, avoiding statements like "I'm not good in math." Teachers can connect STEM skills to careers in such a way that gender stereotypes are undermined. Providing role models and mentorship is a factor, but perhaps less significantly so than we thought several years ago. Perhaps most importantly, we can be teaching girls a growth model of intelligence wherein persevering and working to improve bring positive results.
Stoneleigh-Burnham is undertaking a new STEM initiative. As was shown in a 2009 study at UCLA, girls' schools have strong track records increasing the self-confidence of their alumnae in a number of ways - for one, a graduate of a girls school is three times more likely to enter the field of engineering. The potential for this initiative is enormous. While the program will benefit greatly from the leadership of Upper School science/psychology teacher Taylor Williams and the expertise of her new colleague, Middle School math/science teacher Kayla Burke, as well as other returning math and science teachers, the participation and support of the entire community will be necessary.
And, of course, Algebra.