Friday, July 11, 2014

Algebra in the Real World

A couple of years ago, Queens College Professor Andrew Hacker wrote a provocative piece in The New York Times entitled, "Is Algebra Necessary?". In it, he notes that completing required high school or college algebra courses is a significant bar to graduation for many students. He explains that it is not the useful aspects of mathematics that are the problem; instead, it is the way algebra is taught and the tenuous connection between classroom formulas and real life applications that raise questions about the usefulness and necessity of algebra courses.

We have seen a number of students, with and without math disabilities, struggle with this subject matter and are not surprised by Dr. Hacker's statement that in the City University system in New York, where he taught since the early 1970's "...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." "

There are many excellent tools, books,  and games that help students build algebra skills and support the importance of mathematics and algebra as part of school curricula and as a life skill. Take a look at the "tags" along the right hand side of this blog page for the subject "algebra" to see our relevant posts.

Following up on Dr. Hacker's article, the Times came up with suggestions for using algebra within the context of the subjects covered by the newspaper. In a post on its Learning Network titled, "N Ways to Apply Algebra With The New York Times", Patrick Honner lists numerous ways to apply algebraic formulas. These include:

  • Exploring the housing market, including the impact of changing mortgage rates and whether it is less expensive to buy or rent an apartment
  • Reviewing the numbers used in college rankings and creating an individualized formula for ranking colleges
  • Looking at the costs of owning a car and exploring depreciation rates
  • Determining whether it pays to buy a seven day, 30 day, or single ride MetroCard
Whether you and your students agree or disagree with Dr. Hacker, we can all agree that algebra is not disappearing from high schools and colleges any time soon. If you love it, or just want to get it over with, spending some time applying algebra in the real world may be a useful way to use your brain this summer. 

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