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Algebra II Just Doesn't Add Up

Washington Post Perspectives

(Astrid Riecken/for The Washington Post)

By Jay Matthews

I got an A in algebra II, I think. That was long ago. I do know that I have long since forgotten whatever I learned in that course and have never used it since.

That has become a national problem. Algebra II is required for graduation in 20 states and the District. Yet many experts want to discard it in favor of something more fashionable. These days, they say, students need to understand big data, a course often called statistics.

Algebra II is frequently combined with trigonometry in the third year of high school math. It covers linear equations, functions, exponential and logarithmic expressions, and other things. It became a regular part of American education after high school math was overhauled in the wake of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957.

It no longer gets much respect. The Freakonomics Radio podcast, in a special episode hosted by University of Chicago economist Steve Levitt, surveyed listeners about math subjects they used in their daily lives. Algebra II wasn’t part of that poll, but 70 percent of respondents said they never used its close cousin trigonometry.

That includes me. I use math in my work but only the long division I learned in fourth grade. It helps me prepare my annual list of schools with high rates of college-level test preparation. A calculator I got free in the mail from SPCA International does the actual arithmetic for me.

So why, many people ask, do we need algebra II, or any of those upper-level high school math courses? “It’s embarrassing,” Levitt said on his podcast, “that we teach a math curriculum that nobody, pretty much, is using.”

In a new report, math education experts Phil Daro and Harold Asturias conclude that the traditional math sequence of which algebra II is a part is more trouble than it’s worth. Its peculiar difficulties frustrate too many students interested in math and science “while simultaneously erecting irrelevant math hurdles for students with other interests,” they said in their paper “Branching Out: Designing High School Math Pathways for Equity” on the Just Equations website.

They suggest different pathways after algebra I and geometry that would align with different student goals. This would include “an initial course suitable for 11th grade, in lieu of the traditional Algebra II.” They suggest 11th- and 12th-grade math combinations that would include data science and quantitative reasoning.

That meshes with changes in the workplace. Daphne Marts­chenko, a research analyst at the University of Chicago, told Levitt: “It’s overwhelmingly convincing that people believe data-related skills are important to get by in work today.”

Robert Q. Berry III, a professor of mathematics education at the University of Virginia, is president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, headquartered in Reston, Va. He told me Levitt’s concerns are warranted. He said his organization wants “significant rethinking of what we are teaching in high school to transform learning from focusing on mindless manipulations in mathematics toward developing conceptual understanding.”

NCTM wants "a significant rethinking of what we are teaching in high school to transform learning from focusing on mindless manipulations in mathematics toward developing conceptual understanding"

That means more than just dumping algebra II. Berry wants to build what he calls “positive mathematics identity and agency.” He described that as students “seeing themselves as doers of mathematics and engaging in the behaviors of doers of mathematics.”

That will be a difficult assignment, at least in high school. Many teens don’t even see themselves as doers of homework. Berry understands that overturning the current math sequence will require cooperation from universities, local school boards, state school boards and others. “The challenges are systemic,” he said. To me, that means I will not live long enough to see it happen.

But there are ways to ease algebra II out of high schools. Gregg Robertson, longtime principal of Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington, Va., noted that his math department has courses in probability and statistics, both regular and Advanced Placement, as well as a dual-enrollment quantitative reasoning course through Northern Virginia Community College.

School by school and state by state, that is one way to nudge algebra II toward the trash bin. Requiring that students take four math courses — but not saying which ones — can give a boost to the data and statistics courses being advocated by people like Levitt. Robertson said even calculus, despite its lofty reputation, is also unnecessary for most of his students’ future success.

I passed calculus, too, but don’t ask me to justify its worth. Even before I completed it in 1963, I knew I would never use it again.

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