Columnist Mark Kennedy's articles in the TFP are interesting and insightful, and though I may disagree with him at times, he makes me think. His Sunday column, "Hey, Leave Algebra Class Alone," gives us all pause to think about efficiently using our ever-increasing taxes to educate the next generation of Hamilton County citizens, especially as our Board of Education prepares to hire a new superintendent.
Kennedy references a recent article about Queens College professor Andrew Hacker, who published a controversial book last month titled "The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions." Kennedy disagrees with the author's thesis that the Common Core curriculum puts many American students at a disadvantage, especially the requirement for all students to take algebra.
Kennedy writes, "Algebra hones creativity, perseverance, and resilience — skills you'll need whether you ultimately become a mathematician or a bricklayer." That's true, but only for students who have the basic math skills and determination to take advantage of what algebra offers. Those of us who endured higher-level math, science and engineering courses in college may appreciate the role of algebra; however, for many students, learning how to dig and pour a concrete footer and to lay bricks plumb and level upon that foundation may be more important than teaching them to plot points on an X and Y axis. In other words, a mortar board in some students' hands may be more valuable than the symbolic mortar board worn on graduates' heads.
Algebra will not put money into our kids' pockets, but skills such as bricklaying will. Check out the cost of hiring a bricklayer, and you will quickly realize why good bricklayers get along just fine economically and don't have a mountain of college debt over their head. The same goes for mechanics, computer repair, cosmetology or culinary arts. One must ask: Is it more callous and cold-hearted to frustrate children by forcing them to take algebra, biology and chemistry, which many have no hope of passing; or is it better to have them graduate from school with a skill that they might use to begin life as an adult with the dignity that accompanies one capable of adequately providing for his or her family? Perhaps skills-oriented curricula like that at Sequoyah High School could be expanded to provide far more desirable options for many students than the current Common Core.
Consider the 2015 State Report Card compiled by the Tennessee Department of Education. At Howard School, 39 percent of the students were below basic competency levels in algebra I, 45 percent in algebra II, 48 percent in biology and 75 percent in chemistry. At Brainerd High School, 28 percent were below basic competency in algebra I, 51 percent in algebra II, 48 percent in biology, and 70 percent in chemistry.
Since both schools are primarily non-white, some might perceive a racial component, but many disadvantaged white kids at other schools struggle similarly. The problem is often not the lack of intellectual ability, and anyone having a scintilla of respect within academia knows this. The problem is that many economically disadvantaged students, regardless of race, lack the confidence, desire or basic math skills to perform at the level these courses demand. We can continue to do nothing while we argue and study the social dimension of these problems ad nauseam, or we can offer frustrated students the option to graduate from high school with a skill that can set them on a lifetime of economic sustenance and work fulfillment.
This is the point Dr. Hacker makes in his book. He writes, "Algebra is not a pipeline to success, but is a barrier that ends up suppressing opportunities, stifling creativity, and denying society a wealth of varied talents." Our new superintendent must think outside the Hamilton County school box that has so many students trapped in failed and wasteful programs.
Roger Smith, a local author, is a frequent contributor to the Times Free Press.