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Some Educators Question If Advanced Math Should Be Required

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Of all the subjects that are studied in high school and beyond, algebra can be one of the toughest. Algebra is the one course that's most likely to keep you from graduating high school or getting a college degree. It is the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. And algebra isn't really even used in our daily lives. So why study it? That's the debate that's happening right now across the country, and for details on this, we turn to Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team. Hello there.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So why is it that Americans seem to find math, particularly algebra, so difficult?

KAMENETZ: Well, most people seem to agree that it has to do with how it's taught way back from the beginning. You know, students who major in elementary education - they're going to be grade school teachers - they have the highest rates of math anxiety of any college major. And they bring that into the classroom. So you find students being introduced to math concepts by teachers who may have not only a lack of training but also a lack of enthusiasm about math.

MCEVERS: So isn't the solution then for these teachers just to try harder and do a better job?

KAMENETZ: Well, that's certainly the intention of efforts like the Common Core to raise education standards and make sure that every student masters advanced math concepts - algebra, geometry, statistics and probability. And the idea here, of course, is, you know, mathematics is the language of science, it's the way that we understand the natural world. And there's definitely been a push to sort of study advanced math and kind of reawaken the love of advanced math.

MCEVERS: Is that working?

KAMENETZ: Well, it's a little bit early to say. But there are dissenters who are arguing that we should try something different this time. There's a new book out, for example, called "The Math Myth," and it's by a political scientist and education writer named Andrew Hacker. And he argues that algebra and trigonometry and calculus are subjects that almost nobody used after they graduate, and so why should we continue to compel students to try to pass them?

MCEVERS: But we hear so much about the need for people who have studied math, who can fill these jobs in STEM - right? - science, technology, engineering and math.

KAMENETZ: Well, Hacker argues that that's overblown. There are certainly lots of jobs in computer coding, but coding doesn't really require advanced mathematics. And engineering jobs, they vary widely in the amount of demand that we actually need. So, you know, the number of people for whom the job description includes Newton's calculus is not perhaps that high.

MCEVERS: So what does he think we should be teaching instead of advanced math?

KAMENETZ: Well, not only Hacker but a number of different efforts around the country are to try to redesign the math pathway and the courses that students have to take to make it more applicable to the real world. So we said in the beginning, a majority of students who come into community colleges are still stuck at high school level or remedial math. And when they take it in college, they still don't pass it. So the Carnegie Foundation got together and created two accelerated courses that focus on real-world applications of numbers like for health, for civics, for personal finance - concepts that you and I use every single day.

MCEVERS: And how's it going?

KAMENETZ: Well, at LaGuardia Community College, which is a very large, diverse college in Queens, 70 percent of these students each year have been completing not only the remedial math requirement but a college-level statistics course all in one semester. And this pilot program's going nationwide. Dr. Gail Mellow, who's part of the national initiative at Carnegie and is also the president of LaGuardia, told me the head of her math department didn't believe it when he first saw that these students had improved so much. He thought there was a mistake in the data, but as we all know, numbers don't lie.

MCEVERS: That's right. Thank you so much, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Kelly.

MCEVERS: That's Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.