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Algebra Forever?

I admit that I was an average math student. Basic mathematics made perfect sense to me. Once I mastered my multiplication tables, division was a breeze. I really enjoyed using manipulative tools to solve problems because it allowed me to engage physically with the task. Geometry . . . I excelled at geometry. It was tangible. I could hold it in my hand, or at least it seemed like I could. Even trigonometry in my day, with a slide rule as the essential tool, made some degree of obscure sense. At least I had a hand in manipulating that thing to arrive at an answer. But, algebra? That was another story. Algebra and I never made peace with each other. Had it not been for the patience of Mr. Morris I would have never received a passing grade in this course. However, passing grade or not, I never really understood algebra. Try as I did, it was simply too intangible and elusive for me to wrap my head around.

Thank you, Mr. Morris. You tried.

My experience is not unique. I have known many, many, many students throughout my career that felt as if they had met their match when it came to passing, let alone mastering, algebra. This was a frequently experienced dilemma throughout my entire thirty-five year career in public education. As early as the mid 1970's and young 1980's, the expectation that all students would demonstrate a competency with algebra became a standard of achievement and, eventually, a requirement for graduation. Even today, most states require that successful high school graduation candidates demonstrate the successful attainment of at least three years of mathematics, "Algebra I or higher." I've lost count of how any students, kids with talents and dreams, faced the overwhelming task of passing four semesters of algebra during multiple attempts. They would try, fail, and try again. With each attempt their confidence would experience a new dent. With each attempt, the realization of their dream seemed to move further beyond their grasp. "I must pass Algebra to graduate! How?"

For these young scholars, the requirement of "algebra for all" became "algebra forever." Not a very happy prospect. And, in my mind, not a particularly practical or reasonable one. In creating and perpetuating this seemingly insurmountable task, well-intentioned educators created a barrier, a hurdle too high, for many of their students: a barrier that suggested to many, intended or not, "perhaps you're not quite bright enough or capable enough."

I know I'm about to annoy my friends who are math content specialists. But, here I go, anyway. How many times does the average person use algebra in their daily life? Mathematics, certainly. But, algebra? Does algebra figure prominently as one creates a household budget or reconciles their bank accounts? How about in determining how much material to buy for a DIY project? The Pythagorean theorem may be beautiful and worthy of study by those who have an admiration and affection for the mystery of mathematics, but should it necessarily be a required element of demonstrating proficiency in numeracy and in displaying computational literacy? I've known scores of kids, really bright and capable kids, who would argue (based on their personal experience) that it should not. They would eagerly concede that the study of algebra has a place in the resume of future engineers or astrophysicists. But, for the average student, they might reasonably counsel that an introduction to the key concepts is sufficient, but that multiple semesters of concentrated, and often torturous, scrutiny may be too much.

And, while I'm considering my former colleagues who adore mathematics, and who love teaching it, it can't be a picnic to have students who continue to struggle through the second semester of Algebra I for the third time.

Now, let me be abundantly clear. I am not "math bashing." I have tremendous respect for the field of mathematics as a discipline of study and readily acknowledge its contributions through the evolution of modern civilization. No, what I am doing with this post is something very different from bashing mathematics and those who love it. Instead, I am once again "bashing" the dominant "one size fits all" mentality that continues to pervade modern public education. Algebra just happens to be a convenient example.

In our historic wisdom, we have somehow determined that all children must have an identical skill set, one that is achieved in a lock-step manner with their peers. Interests, readiness to learn, divergent learning styles . . . these are not relevant considerations as the curricular experience of American school children has been designed. Developers have been more interested in efficiency and conformity to a common standard, then they have been toward addressing the individual, the personal, needs of students. These same developers have been successful in convincing policy makers that all children, in the name of equality, deserve to be treated to identical experiences, in a pre-ordained sequence, and that adherence to this formulaic approach will assure a well rounded and educated populace.

I'm afraid they have sold us a bill of goods. The developers have it partially correct - all children are deserving of a quality educational experience. But, it must be viewed through the lens of equity, the suggestion that each child, due to his or her unique characteristics, needs, predispositions and interests must be afforded a personalized experience; an experience that is appropriate and timely in the distinct trajectory of their education experience.

I've said it before. It is a dominant theme of my book The Education Kids Deserve. And, I'll say it here again. Real, authentic learning can only take place if the content, the "stuff being studied," is of interest and is relevant to the learner. Absent this, even what appears to be successful academic achievement, as evaluated by traditional measurements, may be nothing more than polite compliance. I remind my readers of the work of Dr. Bill Daggett, founder of the International Center for Leadership in Education. His famous, and spot on, perspective is this: "Relevance makes rigor possible."

I am a huge proponent of supporting children, all children, in the attainment of excellence. But, it must be in concert with them, not in opposition to them. I appeal to anyone and everyone who cares about the effectiveness of our public education system. We must get the horse in front of the cart, rather than the other (common) way around. If we expect excellence, the content and the associated tasks must be meaningful, appropriate and relevant.

You know what? Doing as I am suggesting is not that difficult. Quite simply, we must think of the kids first, before anything else. Then, and only then, can we go about designing a relevant and personal experience that honors the expectations of the greater system, while acknowledging that it may, or might not, include algebra or other courses that are included in our frequently blind system of instructional design. Barriers must never be part of our syllabi.

"Relevance makes rigor possible." Not the other way around.

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