I'm currently working on a long article about the Common Core, which focuses mostly on the new standards' implications for the humanities. But while I was reporting the piece, one thing I heard from critics of the Core was that is might be dangerous to connect high school graduation requirements with the Core's expectation that all students conquer algebra. Why? Because, in the words of Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, "Education reform has stalled on Algebra 2. The more you demand it, the more drop-outs you have."
In today's New York Times, Andrew Hacker agrees that algebra is unnecessary for most students, though he doesn't mention that because 48 states and territories are planning to adopt the Common Core, the energy in school reform is tilting very much in favor of algebra. Here's the crux of Hacker's argument:
To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.
Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that “to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.” For those who stay in school, there are often “exit exams,” almost all of which contain an algebra component. In Oklahoma, 33 percent failed to pass last year, as did 35 percent in West Virginia.
Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white. In New Mexico, 43 percent of white students fell below “proficient,” along with 39 percent in Tennessee. Even well-endowed schools have otherwise talented students who are impeded by algebra, to say nothing of calculus and trigonometry.
California’s two university systems, for instance, consider applications only from students who have taken three years of mathematics and in that way exclude many applicants who might excel in fields like art or history. Community college students face an equally prohibitive mathematics wall. A study of two-year schools found that fewer than a quarter of their entrants passed the algebra classes they were required to take.
“There are students taking these courses three, four, five times,” says Barbara Bonham of Appalachian State University. While some ultimately pass, she adds, “many drop out.”
Hacker suggests that instead of algebra, students should be required to take statistics, a type of math that he sees as more influential in the political and business worlds. He'd like students to spend less time on polynomials and more time learning how the Consumer Price Index is calculated.
There's a strong argument to be made that math is taught poorly in many schools, with little attention paid to how most people are likely to use numbers in the real world, or how math is applicable to economics, the sciences, and government. But this argument also has a disturbing slippery slope quality; if teenagers find any somewhat obscure task difficult (like reading Shakespeare or doing library research), should they be allowed, or even be encouraged, to avoid learning it? A great teacher can often spark interest in a subject a student thought she would never enjoy. One reason to have more rigorous academic standards is to leave open the possibility of that magic happening more often for more young people, and to make sure unfair streotypes about who is "academic" don't prevent kids from discovering unexpected passions.
These debates are ultimately about tracking: whether it's fair or desirable to expect all K-12 students to work through the same academic standards, or whether it makes sense, especially in the high school years, to do some sorting according to students' interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Many high schools, of course, already sort students through honors, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate tracks; the goal of the Common Core is to get all students performing at those levels.
In other Western nations, such as Germany and Switzerland, it would be considered absurd to say that all 16-year olds should be spending their days learning the same stuff. Nevertheless, that is the tenor of current mainstream education reform thinking in the United States, and I expect we'll be arguing loudly in the coming years over whether that ideology is admirably idealistic or willfully naive.