# 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.