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To Learn or not to Learn

Is there an answer to this eternally asked question?
By Daniel Ferrara

In this paper, I weigh in on the question of the purpose of learning algebra by
analyzing the opposing arguments of why algebra should or should not be taught in high
school. First, I introduce and define algebra in a historical context and explain that
students with an affiliation to history and other subjects can find connections that yield
interest in studying algebra. I explore some of the main points of both sides of the
debate, such as algebra provides intrinsic value as well as cognitive development for
higher education, and contrarily that the nation's alarming failure rate and lack of
practical uses justify not making algebra mandatory. Ultimately I propose a solution that
will increase passing rates in algebra as well as give it a purpose, specifically
redesigning curricula to create an interest in the subject of study for the students.

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To Learn or not to Learn (Algebra)
Some of every math teacher's most hated words probably are along the lines of
"Why do we even have to learn this? I won't need math in my life." This is not just
because it shows an ignorance of the applied forms of math in our society, or a lack of
appreciation for the subject. Rather, it shows that students are giving up, and they
immediately go back to this question as a means of justifying their difficulties and
assuring themselves that failure is not an issue to be concerned about. But we adults all
know that math is essential to learn, so we tell them to keep at it and it will eventually
pay off. Or do we?
I have come to learn in my research that there is a fairly large-scale debate
currently unfolding concerning the validity of the virtues of teaching the high school
sequence of mathematics i.e. geometry, algebra, trigonometry, statistics and calculus.
There are academic professionals that assert the notion that our society would be better
off if our educational system did not make these classes mandatory. Namely, Andrew
Hacker, emeritus professor of political science at Queens College and author of multiple
books on educational reform has an article in the New York Times detailing his full
stance on being anti-algebra. His unconventional views sparked a sizeable response
from math instructors and skeptics alike explaining their opinions and countering his
claims. For the purpose of this paper, I will be focusing on algebra as the mathematical
subject in question and analyzing authors' opposing viewpoints on whether or not it
should be taught.
First and foremost, it is important to understand the definition of algebra and its
historical significance. According to Robert Coolman of Live Science, "Algebra is a
branch of mathematics dealing with symbols and the rules for manipulating those

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symbols" (2015). A vague definition for a vague subject to say the least. The "symbols"
are typically referred to as variables and are used to make generalizations about
relationships between unknown values. Sometimes known as the study of the unknown,
algebra uses the foundational rules of math to observe patterns within itself as a
language rather than just a bunch of numbers. It is ubiquitous in our universe, and thus
has been studied since the dawn of mankind. Because of this fact, algebra has several
critical points in human history worth studying by itself. For example, Pythagoras, one of
the most recognizable Ancient Greek figures derived the Pythagorean Theorem, one of
the most well known equations in all of mathematics and the base for the study of
trigonometry. Accelerating a few hundred years, if you ask any history major about the
outcomes of the Golden Age of Islam, one would most likely mention the invention of
the decimal system and the number zero as we see it today. Hence, from a historical
standpoint, algebra has served a very fulfilling purpose; it has advanced civilizations
and provided us with the foundation for truly phenomenal achievements we have
accomplished centuries after the fact, such as space travel and metropolitan
Putting things in perspective truly elevates the purpose in learning for students.
The question of why we learn something stems from a lack of fulfillment; if an aspect of
interest or relation to the students is made, the will to learn follows. With regards to
historical significance, one point I would make to my students is that the material that
they are currently learning has wracked the brains of the smartest people of their era.
Without them, the course of history would be unfathomably different, including what we
are doing in the classroom this very minute! This way, students, especially those with
more of an inclination to history can gain an interest in algebra and find a sense of

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empowerment and drive to conquer what plagued the minds of those centuries before
them. The same logic can be applied to other content areas. Once a connection is
made, algebra can become relatable and exciting to learn.
One of the main gripes against algebra from both frustrated students and adults
alike is that there are no practical applications of algebra directly into everyday life.
However, Zalman Usiskin contests in his article "Why is it algebra important to learn?"
that there are in fact many uses for algebra and a basic understanding of it. In the fields
of finances, probability, and basically anything that compares two quantities directly or
abstractly, algebra can be used both in reasoning and deducing the relationship of said
quantities. For instance, one can determine whether or not a car is worth purchasing
based upon its monthly payment plan and the interest rate of the loan granted for the
car. A mathematically illiterate buyer may just look at the size of the down payment and
think it is within their affordable price range. Yet, once the numbers are calculated, the
ultimate price may be hidden due to overwhelming payment rates that seem affordable
at first glance. Usiskin realizes however that many adults get by well enough without
any perception of algebra in their lives. He states "You will live in the same world, but
you will not see or understand as much of its beauty, structure and quality. And, quite
possibly, you will not have as much fun!" (1995). Looking away from specific formulas
and numbers, algebra is certainly analogous with many of the complexities with
everyday life. The machinations of our world run on the relationships between its
components, therefore an understanding of the world calls for an understanding of the
rules and patterns of different entities. On a more introspective note, algebra seems
very useful for students to learn to help them become intellectual and knowledge

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seeking individuals. On the other hand, some do not believe in the benefits of algebra
that cannot be boiled down to observable, concrete evidence.
Andrew Hacker caused a bit of a controversy when he wrote his reasons for
getting rid of mandatory high school level math courses. Most of his claims surround the
fact that algebra is typically the reason for most students' failures. While he concedes
that civilization would collapse without mathematics and that there is an undeniably
significant purpose for higher levels of mathematics, the fact that such high rates of
failure are mainly due to algebra, it impedes on students who excel at subjects such as
English, history, or even science. Also, he claims that the shameful failure rates of high
school students in various states is largely in part to algebra. In the 2008-2009 school
year, failure rates reached 39% in Tennessee, 43% in New Mexico, and 45% in Nevada
(Hacker, 2012).
The point that most clashes with opposing views is that there is no empirical
evidence that suggests that knowing how to factor a polynomial or apply the quadratic
formula explicitly translates into making students able-bodied and well rounded
individuals. He denies that learning algebra provided an intuitive perspective that
matures us intellectually, at least enough to make teaching it in schools worthwhile.
Furthermore, he claims that passing high school math courses is not considered much
more than a totem or obstacle for those not naturally proficient in this abstract language.
Personally, I disagree with a few of his points; I find that algebra is as essential to learn
as any other high school subject and that the amount of failures does not justify
removing it altogether. But I am not alone, for this controversial article generated many
responses countering each of his assertions.
In a direct reply to Hacker's article, Denny Gulick, University of Maryland College
Park mathematics professor, gives his own reasons for why algebra should continue to

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be taught. His initial case revolves around the cognitive development algebra provides
students and being a building block for other more advanced courses. According to
Gulick, algebra helps develop logical sense, critical thinking, problem solving skills, and
catalyzes the understanding of physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering.
In response to Hacker, he explains some repercussions of making algebra not
mandatory of all students. Firstly, he claims that one of the reasons students do so
poorly in algebra is because they lack proper training and understanding of the math
that comes before it. Due to various sources of pressure, be it political or local from
school districts, students are being passed without really showing signs of
improvement. Thus they are set up to fail algebra, and removing it altogether would just
lower our standards even more. Essentially, Gulick presents the notion that the
educational system is partially to blame for students' hardships in understanding
algebra, and it would only disservice them more by simply taking away the material
rather than fighting to overcome it. I agree, for the idea of just removing any class on the
basis that it is just too difficult sets a horrible example for students.
Speaking of the students, it may be worth considering the effects of
teaching algebra with purpose and determination, like Ryan Hall did for his algebra
students. He explained that his students felt that algebra was not necessary to learn
either because of its lack of applications as well as it just being too difficult. To eliminate
these doubts from his students' minds, he made a note to make math more relevant to
their interests, for example by calculating the amount of hours they have accumulated in
class using algebra. By showing them a purpose in what they were learning on top of
applying it to their interests, he made it a worthwhile experience. As for the inherent
difficulty students had, his answer was doubling the effort and not showing any sign of

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giving up. With this methodology, Hall has seen a 98% passing rate among his
students, something he believes is achievable nationwide. I concur with his rationale
because something I hold to be true is that the teacher makes all the difference, not
only in what a student learns, but what a student wants to learn.
After researching the arguments of those for and against teaching algebra in
high school, I have concluded that the real problem lies in a collective failure to teach
with an underlying drive fueled by purpose and motivation. Mathematics essentially is
not different from any of the other subjects. It is just another language that requires
attention and practice to become adept at. The high school sequence of math differs
from elementary arithmetic because it shifts from learning to speak the language to
understanding it as a whole through patterns and relationships. Becoming fluent in this
language opens up a new world to marvel at, which is what Usiskin tries to convince his
readers. Aside from the plethora of actual real world applications of algebra, he contests
that the intrinsic value alone is worth learning.
Andrew Hacker makes some valid points in his dissertation, but I think he falters
in several areas. Firstly, any one of his points can be made about another subject. A
large amount of students struggle with history, or a foreign language, but they are not
guaranteed to be affected in any way in adulthood for not learning these subjects in high
school. He appears to favor other subjects that provoke thought through written words
rather than numbers, which someone could argue are not essential to learn when given
the same spin. Furthermore, failure rates should never justify removing a subject from
the educational system when its success is a proven possibility; it only uncovers fault in
the system itself, whether it be improper teaching of the subject or its prerequisites.
What should be focused on is the cause of the problem, which I believe I have spotted.

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One point of discussion that is hard to come to conclusions with is whether or not
algebra really has value that cannot be objectively recorded. Hacker is firm on the idea
that the specific intricacies of an algebra course do not necessarily translate to a more
developed mind in other areas of conscious thought. Gulick asserts however that
algebra provides a foundation for deeper levels of thinking critical in moving further
ahead in education of all subjects. I tend to agree with Gulick and will add that math is
universally considered to be one of the main, front-running subjects taught in school.
Each subject sharpens the mind in different ways, which is why students are held
accountable for this wide variety of knowledge. Removing math would tilt minds in one
direction and create an imbalance in the overall manner we are taught to think. Still, as
Hacker mentions, what is the point of teaching algebra if too many students give up and
fail it?
You ever notice that those with a favorite subject typically never question why it is
necessary to learn in school? One of the most fulfilling reasons to learn any subject is
the desire to learn it. I find that if a student likes a subject and finds a reason to keep
studying, that alone is the purpose. Hence, I propose a solution that will perhaps give a
reason to learn algebra while sharply decreasing failure rates: Reorient the manner in
which any subject, not just algebra, is taught to give students a compelling interest in
the material. Ryan Hall finds this pedagogy successful, for he uses algebra to relate to
his students' lives and creates a passion for students to stop thinking "Why should I
learn this?" and start thinking "Because I want to learn this." It would not be an easy
task, but it undoubtedly would yield results once the students become motivated. When
I teach my students algebra, I will never forget to remind them what the purpose of

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learning is when they cannot find one: to give it purpose through passion and admiration
of the phenomenal nature of the unknown.

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Works Cited
1. Coolman, R. (2015). What is Algebra? Retrieved October 6, 2016 from Live

2. Usiskin, Z. (1995). Why is algebra important to learn? American Educator, 19(1),


3. Hacker, A. (2012). Is Algebra Necessary? Retrieved October 6, 2016 from New

York Times:

4. Gulick, D. (2012). Should Algebra be Required? Retrieved October 6, 2016 from

Mathematical Association of America:

5. Hall, R. (2012). To Learn the Value of Algebra, Just ask an Eighth Grader.
Retrieved October 7, 2016 from Huffington Post