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Staff Photo by John Rawlston Cornelius Hughley uses a calculator as he solves Algebra I problems in class at East Ridge High School. This is the first year that Hamilton County students face gateway exams requiring proficiency in Algebra I, physical science, and English in order to earn a diploma.
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Mark Kennedy

"Who needs algebra?"

That was the first sentence in an Associated Press report last month which questioned whether algebra is an unneeded course that harms the high-school graduation rate in America.

The AP article quoted a political scientist (notice, not an actual scientist) who says that ninth-grade algebra is often the main bugaboo for the 20 percent of American students who don't finish high school.

You could almost hear the cheers erupting in ninth-grade classrooms across America.

Drop algebra? Heck yeah! And while you're at it, break out Pink Floyd: "Teacher, leave them kids alone!"

I graduated high school 40 years ago and I can still remember my math classmates grumbling, "We're never going to use algebra, so why do we have to take it?"

Quoting the AP story: "(Political scientist Andrew) Hacker, a professor emeritus at Queens College, argues that, at most, only 5 percent of jobs make use of algebra and other advanced math courses. He favors a curriculum that focuses more on statistics and basic numbers sense and less on (y - 3)2 = 4y - 12."

So why not drop algebra and free all those kids now imprisoned by quadratic equations?

With all due respect to Professor Hacker, let's leave high school algebra alone. He might be right that most of us don't earn our daily bread parsing polynomials, but that's beside the point. Algebra is good preparation for life. You work hard, struggle some and maybe, just maybe, you begin to see patterns that help you to solve problems.

Our two sons, ages 9 and 14, have had their share of math meltdowns. There's nothing worse than a Sunday night when your kids announce they "don't get" their math homework — and neither do you. Our older son is taking algebra in eighth grade and sometimes his homework becomes a family endeavor. When everyone in the house is stumped, we seek out the help of a family friend, a retired University of Tennessee at Chattanooga math professor who lives nearby. He once told our son, quite correctly: "Look, math is hard. Sometimes it makes your brain bleed."

And that's what makes mastering algebra — or at least passing Algebra I — so valuable. For a lot of kids, it may be the first time they truly struggle in school. Some may even fail the course, only to pass it on the second try.

Sometimes I think that we, as parents, fixate on grades and don't recognize the soft skills associated with struggling. Even if you never have to solve an equation after high school, the life skills you learn in algebra class will be invaluable. Algebra hones creativity, teamwork, perseverance and resilience — skills you'll need whether you ultimately become a mathematician or a bricklayer.

Unlike learning multiplication facts — the kind of rote learning honed in elementary school — algebra calls for higher-level thinking. Some kids, when they realize that the answer isn't swimming around in their random-access memory, begin to melt down. Algebra, like parallel parking, requires lots of backing up and recalibrating your brain.

I've been amazed at how much algebra requires teamwork which, in turn, requires social skills. Most times our older son can get himself unstuck on a troublesome algebra problem by texting a classmate. Other times, friends text him for help. This is how a modern workplace works.

Most of all, algebra requires perseverance and resilience. If at first you don't succeed well, you know.

Bottom line, algebra requires you to deploy your whole mind, not just memorize some facts. And if I'm not mistaken, 100 percent of middle-income jobs today require that kind of mental engagement.

So, who needs algebra? Just about all of us, it turns out.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

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