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“Is Algebra Necessary?”: Yes, But Financial and Economic Literacy Is Too

POSTED: July 31, 2012 | BY: nan | TAGS: , , , ,

This weekend, an op-ed appeared in the New York Times that asked—and answered—the question, “Is Algebra Necessary?”  Not so surprising, the opinion piece, penned by political science professor and author Andrew Hacker, stirred up a bit of controversy.

In it, Hacker argues that making mandatory an understanding of advanced mathematical concepts does more harm than good for America’s students.

While we disagree with many of Hacker’s opinions, and believe in the importance of a rigorous mathematical curriculum, one aspect of his article did resonate with us.  He differentiates between the “usual mathematics sequence,” covering geometry through calculus, and real-world “quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.”  According to a study Hacker cites from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, over the next decade just 5% of entry-level workers will actually require skills in algebra or any math beyond.

But consider this: one could reasonably argue that 100% of the population should be proficient in basic concepts of personal finance and economics.  Our economic climate has never been more difficult to navigate, and the numbers don’t lie: in 2010, more Americans filed for bankruptcy than graduated from college.  And yet, according to the Survey of the States we conducted in 2011, less than half the 50 states require an economics course. And fewer than one-third of US states require a high school course in financial literacy.

Hacker concludes by advocating for an alternative to the current curriculum, one that “would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.”  We couldn’t agree more, but wonder instead, why can’t algebra and the like coexist with “practical” math?  If you ask us, there’s room enough for both.

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