ALGEBRA OR CHICKENS?

Two recent articles in Florida Today, both innocuous and of little importance, collectively resonated in my skull today. On Friday, I noted the results of the daily topics column, which asked five Brevardians if making every high school student take algebra were a good idea. The column serves as a man or woman-in-the-street opinion poll on issues.

Four of the five people felt the idea was not a good one. I didn't agree with the results of the survey, but what bothered me more were the reasons given. Two of the people said algebra shouldn't be mandated because children with types of disabilities, specifically learning disabilities, would not be able to understand it. Another said no, it is much more important to have a firm foundation in the basic computation skills. A fourth said no, but it certainly could be a course for admission into colleges and universities. The last person said yes, because other countries seem to be ahead of us in the mathematics field.

My memory tells me a year of algebra and a year of geometry were mandatory when I attended high school in Chicago. Perhaps it is incorrect, but I know they were required for students who expected to attend college. Neither I nor my fellow students found algebra terribly taxing: the subject imposed daily homework and self-discipline on students, and it was necessary to think logically and follow prescribed mathematical rules. Nevertheless, algebra was not a topic only the most brilliant could understand. People with modest ability usually did fine, so long as they worked the assigned problems and reviewed for the tests.

I would not require a young student with a verifiable learning disability to take algebra, unless he or she wanted to do so. With a decent tutor to help, I think most of them could also pass the course. Algebra is not quantum mechanics or relativity theory. In essence, it is straightforward and easily visualized.

But to rule out algebra as a required subject for everyone because a few might not comprehend it seems inconceivable to me. One might as well decide none of us should learn to walk because some children have afflictions that prevent them from ever doing so. And to say that algebra should not be mandatory because students must have a firm foundation in basic computational skills, makes the matter an either/or choice. The answer is students, of course, should have both. I would further state that basic math skills begin with addition in the second grade, work up to fractions and decimals around the fifth grade, and should be thoroughly mastered by the seventh grade. Teaching everyone algebra in high school would have no bearing on computation skills.

What I hesitate to mention is that algebra is only the first few faltering steps of students beginning to learn mathematics. Geometry, trigonometry, solid geometry, advanced algebra, analytical geometry, differential and integral calculus, differential equations, partial differential equations, linear algebra, numerical analysis, matrix algebra, statistics, the theory of probability, and more follow. None can be worked without a solid understanding of and ability to employ algebra. It is the footing on which mathematical houses are erected.

What we have done and are still doing is to permit our children to work to minimal expectations. We have not challenged them. Yes, some would fail rigorous courses, just as some adults never progress beyond low-paying jobs. But those who do not expect achievement from their children will rarely get it. They must understand a child's intellectual potential will not be realized unless he or she works as close to it as possible. America did not become a superpower because people avoided things that were difficult, nor will America remain one if we continue doing so.

That brings me to the second article I read in Florida Today. On Saturday, the editorial page discussed the thousand new jobs Excell Agent Services is bringing to Brevard as one example of signs of an economic turnaround. Unquestionably, all of us are glad the jobs are coming here. We need them badly. Specifically, the article mentions they will be a godsend to many local families that are now scrambling to survive on the minimum wage. It said most of these jobs will pay between $6.00 and $7.25 an hour. The higher figure translates to $15,000 a year. Reduced by a 6.75% Social Security tax and little, if any, Federal Income Tax, take home pay cannot exceed $14,000. Two such jobs are required to support a family.

Does anyone besides myself see the connection between not taking a subject as basic as algebra and an abundance of $7.25 jobs in an area? The Boston route 128 area, Silicon Valley, and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina didn't gain their wealth employing people who failed to take algebra. Brevard won't either. Our climate and tourist industry are valuable assets, but demanding excellence from our children is far more important. It will, long term, mean a better future for all Brevardians. Too many of us still believe algebra is only for rocket scientists.

This preamble brings me to the final answer to the paper's survey, the one that said, yes, algebra should be required. The picture shows the respondent to be a black man whose occupation was listed as that of a warehouse deliveryman. His job title indicates he is neither an engineering nerd nor an academic. I salute both his common sense and perception, and would like to tell the following story.

Nearly a decade ago, another newspaper in a different place published an article that criticised America's educational system. Russian and Chinese children were getting calculus in high school. Evenings, they were doing plenty of homework. Meanwhile, our children were often working at McDonald's after school or at night for spending money. Either cash register arithmetic was too much for some of them, or their employer didn't want to take the chance. Instead of numbers on the keys, the kids were told to look for pictures of french fries, hamburgers, or chickens. At that time, the cold war was still hot. The disgusted author said when the Russian soldiers launched their rockets they'd calculate the trajectory, zenith, and range of the missiles. On the other end, our young soldiers would be looking for the chickens on their antimissile keyboard.

Our kids are inherently every bit as good or better than those of any other nation in the world. If they do not learn mathematics as well as they do computers, Moog synthesizers, or automobile hi-fi equipment, it is because we have not emphasized its value and taught it to them. We are throwing them untaught into a world where knowledge means jobs, security, and money, and ignorance is synonymous with failure. Changing things will take a generation of sweat and effort, but most worthwhile things do.