Queen’s College professor calls for removing algebra from required curriculum

Elizabeth Huang

Algebra is the reason why 40 percent of the people who start college don’t finish, according to a newly published book on math education. 

Andrew Hacker, a professor emeritus at Queens College in New York, argues in his book “The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions,” released Tuesday, that algebra should not be mandatory for all students because it acts as a barrier to furthering students’ education and prevents them from discovering and developing their talents.  

“One out of every five young people in the United States today does not finish high school,” Hacker said. “The chief academic reason why people fail to graduate from high school is they failed algebra. It’s a senseless barrier.”

Hacker, who teaches in the department of political science at Queens, said not everyone needs to pass algebra to succeed.

“Throughout the country, the biggest single college course that is failed is freshman math,” Hacker said. “I see no reason why if you’re going to major in modern dance or literature or history why you have to jump over this algebra barrier.”

Mathematics professor Michael Starbird said there is no need to get rid of algebra itself but to change the way that it is currently taught.

“[You shouldn’t do] less mathematics,” Starbird said. “You should select mathematical experiences that foster creativity and clear mindedness of students.”

Mark Daniels, a clinical professor in the UTeach science program, said modifying textbooks is one way to alter how algebra is taught. 

“I don’t think books need to be 500 pages or 1000 pages. Books can be 100 pages where it’s investigative, where students see how things are connected,” Daniels said. “They learn the how and the why of the equations and what they are doing. I think that would be more motivational than just memorizing examples and hoping there’s one like that on the test.”

Hacker’s answer to the algebra problem is his class Numeracy 101, a course offered to college freshmen as an alternative to algebra. The class teaches quantitative reasoning with 6th grade-level math, Hacker said. The curriculum includes problems about how congressional districts are drawn and how the Internal Revenue Service catches people who cheat on their taxes.

“All of this is part of what we call agility with numbers,” Hacker said. “It’s not just about the particular assignments but to get people to think numerically, and that’s what we try to do.”