New York City students completed taking their Regents exams last week, which led to a rather spirited discussion between my high school freshman and me as to whether Algebra 2, which my son passed at the end of 8th grade, should continue to be a graduation requirement or whether New York should get rid of it, as some states have already done.
My son Gregory Wickham (click here for his website) is 15 years old and rarely puts much stock in my opinions. So I suggested he write out his argument, and ask those who are not his mother for their input. His take is below; please share your thoughts with him in the Comments!
The requirement of Algebra 2 for NY high school graduation puts an unnecessary impediment in students’ paths. It’s a course they must pass for no reason other than that it’s required, and with no benefits except those constructed around the requirement itself.
It shouldn’t be more difficult for students to have a good life or job simply because they didn’t earn a 65 on a test in high school. This graphic from NPR shows the most common jobs in America. Which of them do you think requires the knowledge learned in order to get 65 on a Regents exam in order to do your best at that job? I’d estimate fewer than four.
Some say, “if they don’t take Algebra II in high school, students will be out of the running for a host of careers, from engineering to health care. We run the risk of enabling middle school students to set out on a very early path that narrows their future. A broad foundation in math opens doors later on, especially as old jobs disappear and entirely new industries that we have yet to even imagine come on the scene.” (You can look up who said this if you really want to, but I typically don’t name enemies.)
This argument has many flaws.
It implies that if a student chooses not to take Algebra 2 in high school, they could never learn it or any advanced mathematics, ever. That’s not how knowledge works, though it’s unfortunate that for many, a public high school is the only place where they will be able to be taught these skills.
Algebra 2 isn’t like language, where if you miss the critical period, you can never learn it effectively. If that were the case, high school would be too late to be teaching it anyway. To people who defend Algebra 2, saying it’s a “way of thinking,” I say, “So?”
Algebra 2 is one way of practicing skills like logic and problem solving, but so are Algebra 1, geometry, language, and science. Any course where you are asked to do anything will help you practice these skills and many more, including teamwork, speaking, and communication. But those aren’t on the Regents so I guess they test for a few of these skills by forcing people to demonstrate a narrow application of some of them on one test, and if they don’t get a 65, no diploma for them.
This argument assumes that Algebra will be useful when approaching “new industries we have yet to even imagine.” What’s so special about Algebra that makes it more important for a potential future than things schools don’t require, such as finance, rhetoric, astronomy, or phrenology?
I’m not claiming Algebra 2 will be useless when approaching the future. I’m saying that, as far as we can know, it’s going to be just as useful as anything else.
In the novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, humanity encounters a set of problems on which the entire world must work together. That collaboration by people with both general and niche knowledge is what yields success.
Requirements limit people. We should be trying to unlimit humanity, especially in the modern age with ubiquitous knowledge and collaboration becoming easier every day. If a student decides against taking Algebra 2, they can take a different course instead. Unfortunately, many schools don’t offer many options, but that’s a different problem.
Probability and statistics, which are very important to teach, are a part of Regents Algebra 2 that I think is necessary. But the combination of low standards and bad teachers relegates this topic to an otherwise impractical course which many students fail.
The fact that this important topic is rolled into Algebra 2 might make you think, “this is a vital course necessary to produce the scientists and engineers of tomorrow and ensure a populus that can make informed decisions.”
If someone is going to become an engineer, not being required to take Algebra 2 is unlikely to be what ultimately stops them from achieving that. Teacher quality and school community are far more important factors, and ones that need addressing. Statistics should be taught earlier. Don’t leave it until high school.
Yet others argue that optionalizing Algebra 2 will enhance the current problems of the system, such as racial and income inequality, and help to compound the advantages of the already privileged. But what advantage will Algebra 2 offer when it’s no longer treated as vital? There are paths that people may wish to take for which Algebra 2 is useful or even critical, and if the public school system offers it to all students, it will work just as well for those students as it does now.
In fact, it will likely work better, because optionalizing a course ensures only students who want to take it will enroll, which helps all students. Algebra 2 is enjoyable for many, but for many it’s not, and I know firsthand that having classmates who want to learn helps everyone succeed, while having classmates who would rather be anywhere else is detrimental to everybody.
If Algebra 2 is optionalized and it ruins the lives of students who chose not to take it, I’ll say to them “Are you sure choosing not to take Algebra 2 in high school is what ruined your life?” and then, if they can honestly say, “I’m sure,” I will say, “I’m sorry that you were not given the information necessary to make an educated choice about your future.”
This all brings up one question: What is the purpose of high school? Unfortunately, that is a much too complex and multi-faced topic to discuss here.
If you type that query into Google (or, let’s be honest, when I type that into Google, as Google tailors results to every user), I get an answer from Quora:
The purpose of high school is to impart the ability to be prepared during critical times of life. Moreover, the high school prepares you for competence to act in the employment market with ethical principles, and it also provides the necessary knowledge to exercise the rights of citizenship.
Wait? Is that a joke?
If that’s what high school is for, then there are about a quintillion problems that need to be fixed first, and Algebra 2 doesn’t even rank in the top million.