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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Algebra good for legislators, too

The Joint Education Committee heard testimony this week from Richard Wilson of the Bureau of Legislative Research about public school transportation costs. Adequacy study after adequacy study has seen the state trying to derive an equitable formula for funding school districts' ability to get students to school.

It's not easy. Some districts are compact; rural ones have students living miles apart. But, this year, the Bureau proposed a new formula it says is the most accurate prediction of school district needs thus far:
Transporation Costs = Miles Traveled + Number of Riders + Average Daily Membership

This was about the point when Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home) thanked Wilson for his use of algebra in light of recent news items questioning algebra requirements. As Wilson showed, to be able to responsibly legislate issues such as transportation, people need to understand algebraic equations.

To Mr. Key's point, we say a resounding, "Exactly!"

A recent editorial in the New York Times, reprinted in our own Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, questioned the need for algebra for all students. The author, Andrew Hacker, is not alone in his criticism of algebra for the masses.

But that doesn't make him right.

In his article, he sites algebra as the cause for the drop-out rate of ninth-graders.

Not that he doesn't make some decent points, but there's ample evidence to show that he's wrong when he says that our students can't learn and don't need algebra.

Just look at statewide end-of-course scores for algebra over the last 10 years. During that decade, Arkansas has put in a number of concerted, systemic efforts to improve education for all students. What the data shows is that it's not the students who were not performing up to par -- it was the system. In 2003, 40 percent of Arkansas's algebra students scored proficient or advanced on the Algebra I End-of-Course exam. Ten years later, 80 percent did.

(Now, anticipating that some will say disparagingly that's because our schools are teaching to the test, please consider this.  The tests are based solely on Arkansas's student learning expectation, those concepts and skills we as a state have said our students need to master in each course. Good test scores show that teachers are teaching those lessons well, and our students are mastering them. Nothing wrong with that!)

As for ninth-graders dropping out of school, that indeed is a pivotal year. Look at enrollment numbers and you'll see that indeed it is when a lot of students do disappear from the public schools. But to lay  the blame at the feet of the algebra requirement? We have to say, hold on a minute, buster.

As we've seen, more students are mastering the course. Maybe that's why only 23 of the dropouts in 2011-2012 cited failing grades as the reason for leaving school. Meanwhile, 697 cited lack of interest ins school and another 324 were suspended or expelled.

Many school districts are successfully addressing the ninth-grade drop-out problem with strategies to help ninth graders have an easier transition to high school, none of which involve the exclusion of the algebra requirement.

These include ninth-grade academies, credit recovery programs, alternative learning education programs and, as a very specific example, Project Pride in Manila.

Several years ago, concerned about the loss of students in that important ninth-grade year, Manila Public Schools instituted a program to pair older students with ninth graders to serve as mentors. Since the inception of this program, Manila has witnessed a dramatic increase in its graduation rates.

And they still require Algebra, Geometry and Algebra II.

As the Education Trust-West said in response to California's efforts to dilute math requirements, “Indeed, research now tells us that young people need even higher-level courses to succeed; geometry is the benchmark for success in blue collar jobs, and Algebra II for success in college and the white collar workforce.”

So who needs algebra? Few, very few, people don't.
  • Carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, to name a few, use it to calculate costs, materials needed and the actual how-to of projects. 
  • Obviously, engineers, physicist, nurses, doctors and others in the STEM fields. 
  • We know a photographer who would have lost money on the sale of her photos at a gallery show if she hadn't known the algebraic equation to calculate what she needed to charge to get her price plus the gallery's 40 percent. (Hint: Simply adding 40 percent to the original price as some of her colleagues did would have left her short-changed.) 
So, yeah, algebra comes in handy even for artsy types.


And, as Sen. Key pointed out, if you think you want to be a legislator, algebra would be a good thing to know for that, too.

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