Covering The Basics

Thinking about math education.
The only reason I passed algebra is because my mother literally sat with me every night in seventh grade as I wailed and wept over my cruel algebra homework, which she understood quite well but I never really did. (So much for the notion that all math-deficient girls need is math-whiz female role models.) I managed to keep the basic facts in my head just long enough to get a C in the class and do well enough on the SATs a few years later to get into UCLA, and that was the end of my algebraic education.

In those days, some three decades ago in California, Alebgra II wasn’t a college requirement, and if you were deemed an advanced student (which I was, except for math) you could get the whole thing out of the way by junior high. You certainly didn’t need algebra to graduate from high school, which in its wisdom the Los Angeles Unified School District now requires–along with a mandatory college-prep curriculum currently being phased in for all students.

But as the *Los Angeles Times* reported recently in a series about failing students, less than 40 percent of 9th graders pass Alebgra I with a grade of C or above. The school board hasn’t explained how making every high schooler take even more higher math will improve the current 50-percent dropout rate in L.A. public schools, or help California colleges already overwhelmed with freshmen needing remedial classes. And these educators may need some remedial math themselves, because apparently they can’t understand that by definition half the population is below average, and therefore not cut out for college-level work.

Perhaps the higher-math requirement is some sort of equalizer, because poor kids from troubled homes aren’t the only ones having problems with algebra. An intelligent, well-read friend of mine has a lovely, artistic, carefully raised teenage daughter who gets straight F’s in math, and I doubt this is a freak case.

My own 16-year-old had a D in Algebra II last semester until she began attending her public school’s free weekly tutoring sessions. I supplemented these by paying the 24-year-old tutor, a nice boy who somehow made the subject more understandable than the teacher, $20 a week to come to our house Saturday mornings. But after Maia upped her grade to a C, I saw no need to continue, especially after the tutor began suggesting they should date. A grade of C in algebra is good enough for me–particularly in a schedule that, because of mostly A’s in AP and afterschool college classes, means she has a 4.0 grade-point average even with that C.

Back to my own tortured algebra lessons. “You’ll need it when you grow up,” my mother always insisted loudly, trying to be heard over my high-pitched whines. Well, she was right about a lot of things, including all those x and y equations, but not that.

I’ve never needed algebra, and in fact have noticed that in everyday life fast arithmetic can trump advanced math. I used to ask a physics-major friend to estimate the tip when we had lunch, thinking that because she went to Caltech she’d be much better than little old math idiot me. But then I began to notice I’d figured out the tip in my head while she was still staring vaguely at the bill, presumably distracted by passing thoughts of quantum mechanics.

I admit there are moments when algebra might come in handy. As a longtime freelance writer, I periodically do complicated calculations about how soon my money will run out–and I can see that if I knew how to make x equal what’s in the bank, and y equal what’s coming in, I could get depressed a lot faster. But I’ve always been able to solve these puzzles via long-division estimates on my $3 calcuator. I even got the right answer on the sample algebra question the *Times* printed, although I’m not sure how.

Certainly all high-school students should have access to college-prep courses, and those with potential could use more encouragment. I’d have a better opinion of Rob Reiner if he let go of his nursery-school hobbyhorse for a minute to consider that education funds might be better spent on, say, more honors classes, skilled teachers, and college and career counselors in the upper grades than universal preschool for four-year-olds.

But a realistic respect for the vocational track might help too, with happier results than setting up even more kids to fail. There’s no shame in having an aptitude for useful, honorable work like being a plumber or medical assistant or hairdresser or salesman–none of which requires a college degree–instead of higher education. And if, as the *Times* pointed out, apprentice programs for blue-collar trades like plumbing require algebra, well, that’s another track that might not be for everyone. So why make us all get on it?

–* Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.*