Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why Isn't Our Children Learning?

The answer, it seems, is Algebra, or so says Andrew Hacker, writing in today's New York Times.

A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t...

It seems - at least to Hacker - that the main reason kids drop out of high school and college is algebra.

Another dropout statistic should cause equal chagrin. Of all who embark on higher education, only 58 percent end up with bachelor’s degrees. The main impediment to graduation: freshman math. The City University of New York, where I have taught since 1971, found that 57 percent of its students didn’t pass its mandated algebra course. The depressing conclusion of a faculty report: “failing math at all levels affects retention more than any other academic factor.” A national sample of transcripts found mathematics had twice as many F’s and D’s compared as other subjects.

And I was hoping that it might at least be Calculus.

I might have mentioned that I once taught an early sequence engineering course that all aspiring engineers had to pass, Engineering Dynamics, which consisted mainly of vector algebra and calculus. To my chagrin, after the exam I found half my students flunking. I was upset enough to go to the Dean and ask what I was doing wrong. He told me half the students always flunked and that was how prospective engineers learned they were actually business majors.

Oh well.

Hacker seems to be arguing that failure to master Algebra should not deprive students of the benefits of various banners of academic accomplishment. We could probably solve all this by adopting Freeman Dyson's suggestion of just awarding every American a PhD at birth.