Julia Steiny: Promote Algebra by Teaching Basic Software Programing

Aug 15, 2012 by

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist

Surely Professor Andrew Hacker knew he’d be reviled for going public – in the New York Times opinion section – asking Is Algebra Necessary? – and concluding that it is not. Algebra, and math requirements more generally, keep “unqualified” kids out of college altogether and push many college students out by failing them in math. Math courses shower kids with the experience of failure disproportionately to other subjects. Hacker suggests we just ease up so mathematically-challenged poets and philosophers can thrive.


Naturally, most of the four zillion reader comments argued passionately that algebra is necessary and listed why. Many took Hacker to task for arguing a further “dumbing down” of the already low bar that Americans set for their students.

I applaud him for sparking the conversation. And one of the reader comments turned me onto this book http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Number_Devil, which was a positive addition to the conversation.

I’m also going to go with yes. But I’ll explain myself by plotting a path to help students acquire the reasoning skills that algebra teaches.

In the 1980s researchers showed that requiring Algebra II blocked many minority and low-income students from having any hope of applying to college. The College Board responded with a program they called Equity 2000 http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/15/10/1510.htm . I was on the Providence School Board at the time when the City became one of the 6 pilot sites.


The point was to eliminate all the “business” and “consumer” dummy-math courses. Instead all 9th graders would take Algebra with the assumption that many could make it after all. By taking Alg I, those 9th-graders had 4 years to get through Geometry and the ugly gatekeeper, Alg II.

I don’t know about the other sites, but Providence backed up even further. All 6th graders went into Pre-Algebra. The teachers’ hew and cry about the kids not being able to do the work might have been well-meaning and protective of the kids, but it only strengthened our resolve to boost kids’ opportunities. Some training, probably not enough, was provided for all the math teachers 6-12 to help the kids who were struggling get through.

There were two terrific unintended consequences. First, quite apart from its intended audience, the program was a godsend to the smarty-pantses. My kids were going through the system at the time, so I could see for myself the Brown University, Providence and Rhode Island College professors’ kids, among others, booking through the sequence, finishing Algebra I in 7th grade and Geometry in 8th. Those kids, along with private-school students and home-schoolers who tested in, entered the local exam school taking Algebra II. That school had to beef up its math program for those kids as they matriculated.

The other terrific consequence was that the kids who didn’t master a whole year of the subject in one year could at least get credit for what they did achieve, instead of flat-out repeating, which is such a drag. So schools invented Pre-Algebra II, and Algebra I Blue Group, and versions of the sequence that took a cohort of kids who made it to X and took them from there. The sequence for many was slower, but again, many of them entered high taking Geometry. At a minimum, their math courses were more rigorous so when they did get to Algebra I the failure rates were far less damning.

Bottom line: the effort worked. In fact, several years later, many more urban kids were applying to college from the local high schools.

But here’s the problem that wasn’t solved at the time: At the time a research cliche was that only about one-third of all learners learn out of context. This means that the kids for whom academics came easily could learn an abstract concept and then apply it to a problem. Fully two-thirds needed to see the problem and think it through to grasp the abstract concept embedded in the answer. So much of the teaching and learning – it’s only a bit better now – was about finding right answers and not about learning to think problems through.

As the NY Times’ readers enumerated at length, algebra does teach logic, patterning, problem-solving, critical and analytical thinking, which is to say reasoning in a very pure form.

Yes, attempts such as Connected Math work to do precisely that, to offer real-world problems to teach algebraic abstractions. But two of my now-grown sons became software developers and have been arguing since high school that programming is algebra, only infinitely more fun and interesting.

That was a sweet idea until I ran into the Advanced Academy of Math and Science in Marlborough, Massachusetts. First, every student 6 through 11th grade takes computer science, and does so in conjunction with math and science so it is always being applied. The school’s state test scores are off the map, if that’s the only thing you care about.

But they have struggled mightily to figure out how to bring along those “poets and philosophers,” especially among the girls, with serious success. Lots of kids applied to this charter school only to get out of what ever school they would otherwise attend, so it’s not like only the STEM-gifted applied.

In this day and age, all kids should start down a computer-science road right about 6th grade anyway. The Equity 2000 program badly needed more tricks, options, and approaches than they had at the time to lure the struggling kids into real engagement with math. AMSA’s experience shows computer science offers a whole set of problem-solving opportunities that have not, as yet, been exploited by hardly any other schools.

America’s K-12 educators can’t really afford to keep lowering the bar. Raise it, instead. But get creative about how to do so. It’s 2012. Can we really not see the value of computer science as a compelling teaching strategy? Who are the slow learners here?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationViews.org, GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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