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It’s true that students in Finland, South Korea and Canada score better on mathematics tests. But it’s their perseverance, not their classroom algebra, that fits them for demanding jobs.

Well, isn't that quite the off-handed dismissal? Those guys are only better at algebra because they're so bloody persistent!

Quantitative literacy clearly is useful in weighing all manner of public policies, from the Affordable Care Act, to the costs and benefits of environmental regulation, to the impact of climate change. Being able to detect and identify ideology at work behind the numbers is of obvious use. Ours is fast becoming a statistical age, which raises the bar for informed citizenship. What is needed is not textbook formulas but greater understanding of where various numbers come from, and what they actually convey.

That's what algebra does! Arithmetic is about grinding out numbers; (numerical) algebra is about patterns numbers exhibit, and how they relate to things they represent.

An algebraic description of some interesting phenomenon might admit many models, not all of which are numeric, but most of which satisfy some of the same laws as numbers. This lets you see what is really of interest, namely the thing for itself, das Ding an sich, rather than its arbitrary realization as a number.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that when we get taught algebra we are always told that these variables we play with stand for numbers. That's convenient because we were already taught how to interpret operators like + and times as operations on numbers. But it also misses the whole point of algebra, which is that what is important is not the carrier but rather the operators and their laws. Sometimes more abstraction actually makes things simpler, because it forces you to separate what must be true from what is true only because of your choice of representation.

If we want to get away from overemphasizing useless number-crunching skills, we need more algebra not less. Instead of eliminating algebra because we can't teach it well, shouldn't we just try teaching it better?
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15 comments
 
I like to read these stories. I don't have enough money to retire and expect to keep working for at least another decade or two. News like this means I'm more likely to be able to keep myself employed, even though the skills I'm trying to market are seen by many as a young person's game.
 
I sometimes have similar thoughts about the unpopularity of typed functional languages.
 
Of course it would be written by a professor of political science. True to the stereotype, they understand math the least of any of the social sciences (and probably deserve the latter half of that appellation the least as well).
 
It's really too bad, considering that Voting Theory is predominantly a mathematical issue.
 
That article is a crock of something. I see anecdotes juxtaposed with failure numbers. I see the argument that "students perform badly at math, so we should drop algebra." I don't see a valid argument anywhere. I call troll.
 
Here's a parent/teacher who re-enrolled in an algebra class to help her son with his homework. "I have learned discipline and the importance of linear, organized thinking. I have learned patience, diligence and shockingly, I have learned that I am good at math. Even my teenage son has been impressed by my efforts, and believe me, very little impresses him these days. Algebra class has made me a better student, but more important, it has made me a better teacher and parent."

http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/31/in-defense-of-algebra/
 
Thanks to +Dan Piponi's reference and the references referenced by that reference, I am even more convinced that Hacker is trolling and all the responders are feeding the troll. I suppose we need to have this discussion, even though it really shouldn't be necessary.
 
Reading the Huff Post article reminds me of my own experience with math in high school. I was good at math in primary school, but just barely scraped by in high school until my very last year, when I took calculus.

In that class, seeing how to do differentiation and integration crystallized for me that math has many mechanical (algorithmic) parts and some parts that require creativity. After that it suddenly clicked for me and I breezed through math in college. If I hadn't been forced to take algebra and calculus (admittedly unlikely, since I went to a private prep school, but), I might never have reached that point where it turned around for me.
 
I think I have always enjoyed math, though I will not claim to have ever been good at it. Even still, I constantly struggle. I just enjoy the problem-solving challenges it presents.

+Frank Atanassow Which prep school, if you don't mind my asking? I also went to one: McCallie.
 
Harvard, now known as Harvard-Westlake. It's in Los Angeles, in North Hollywood. I'm afraid I don't know McCallie.
 
I don't know any west-coast schools either, so we're even. ;)
 
But it is interesting that it was also a boys school, like mine, which remains so today.
 
Actually, I was referring to the parallel experiences: boys prep school, Utrecht, Haskell, etc. I wasn't making a political/social comment on anything (for once). ;)
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