Retorts: Math requirements don’t add up

HIGHER MATH? It’s all Greek, or Latin, to Tribune editor Jim Tortolano.

Let’s imagine a high school classroom, more than a few years ago. A group of students is working geometry problems. A pretty blonde in the front row turns to the boy behind her and asks, “What did you get on Question Six?”

Dolefully, he fesses up. “I’m still on Question One.”

That really happened to me. The good news is that the pretty girl was Marilyn Lewis, and she has since forgiven my math innumeracy and became my wife. But I’m not any more adept or happy with higher math than I was back in the day.

How much advanced numbers work a person should complete and master is in the news these days. The chancellor of the California community college system – Eloy Ortiz Oakley – has come out in favor of dumping a requirement that intermediate algebra is necessary to get an associate in arts degree, except for students in fields of science, technology, engineering or math.

“College-level algebra is probably the greatest barrier for students — particularly first-generation students, students of color — obtaining a credential,” he said. “If we know we’re disadvantaging large swaths of students who we need in the workforce, we have to question why. And is algebra really the only means we have to determine whether a student is going to be successful in their life?”

Amen, Brother Eloy. The relevance of algebra to most aspects of people’s lives are as significant as memorizing “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” which I did – by the way – in fifth grade. I think Paul was still around back then.

My gripe is not with higher math, per se, or those who teach it. It’s with the notion that it’s somehow the key to a better life or true higher education. A century ago, Latin and Greek were required at many colleges. I’m sure that in 1917, professors gave the same answer to students who questioned the value of those topics as students today might ask about the necessity of wrestling complex polynomials to the ground.

“You’ll use it when you get older.” Applesauce. I somehow managed to pass algebra and geometry and use both those bodies of knowledge as often as I use my fourth-grade study of Peruvian exports in social studies class.

But let’s set that aside for just one moment and get to the root of the numbers crisis. I retired a little more than a year ago from my “other life” as a college professor. And, dear reader, I’m here to tell you that many, if not most of my students not only retained little of what they learned of math in high school, but also didn’t have a very firm grasp of arithmetic.

They could count to 10 or better, but ask them to figure a percentage, or convert a mile into a metric distance and you might as well be speaking in, well, Greek or Latin. Can they do a simple bit of long division without a calculator? Fat chance.

If you force unwilling youngsters into an intermediate algebra class, they might well pass it, eventually, after much anguish and two or three tries. But they will almost certainly dump whatever they “learned” before they clear the door. Is that what we mean by education?

Higher math is useful. But so are journalism, first aid, PhotoShop and beginning karate. Trying to squeeze the art major and the law enforcement student through that numerical eye of the needle is bound to be frustrating to all but the most dedicated “mathaletes.”

Of course, the pretty blonde disagrees. Since she ended up making three times more a year than I did, maybe she’s a bit right. But I wonder if – today – she could answer Question Six. I know I can’t.

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears on the Wednesdays, which is the fourth day of the week. I think.



1 reply »

  1. Beautiful written article! As an early childhood educator I understand we need to get familiar with algebra, but I still do not think should be a requirement to graduate.

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