Experts are split on the necessity of requiring algebra in high school

In his recent book, “The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions,” political scientist Andrew Hacker argues, among other things, that we should not require high school students to take algebra.

Part of his argument, based on data some have questioned, is that algebra courses are a major contributor to students dropping out of high school. He also argues that algebra is nothing more than an “enigmatic orbit of abstractions” that most people will never use in their jobs.

There is no doubt that this kind of argument resonates with people who had bad experiences in a math class in their past, and for this reason Hacker’s book is getting lots of attention. On the other hand, there are many reasons why I and many others in the mathematical community disagree with Hacker’s opinions.

Fundamentally, Hacker has a misunderstanding of what algebra is.

The word “algebra” comes from the Arab word “al-jabr,” which means “to balance.” Using it in a mathematical context dates back to a Persian manuscript in the ninth century, which introduced the beginnings of what grew into what we now study in high school.

The big idea that distinguishes algebra from the mathematics that had come before is to think of operations taking place simultaneously on whole collections of numbers rather than on a single number.

Next page: Why, exactly, do students need algebra?