Is Algebra Necessary? Andrew Hacker Op-Ed in New York Times!

Dear Commons Community,

Andrew Hacker , emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, and a co-author of “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It.” has  an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times asking the question:  Is Algebra Necessary?  Actually his question extends:

“beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus. State regents and legislators — and much of the public — take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.”

Hacker goes on:

“There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)

This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.”

Hacker raises a serious issue that has been the subject of many curricula discussions. Whether our education system (primary, secondary, and postsecondary) is ready to change our mathematics requirements is difficult to say.  In any case, Hacker’s  piece is well worth the read.



  1. Dear Professor Hacker,

    Regarding your concerns with respect to the teaching of algebra, i think perhaps that we have a bit of goal displacement here.

    Having taught mathematics and computer science, as well as having, amazingly, actually used the material, i think you may be asking the wrong question.

    It is not “should we be teaching algebra”, but rather “how should we be teaching algebra”. When people can relate to material, they tend to absorb and appreciate it.

    I have found that many high school (and college!) students are not capable of arranging their thoughts logically, or making a coherent presentation, and algebra can help with that, if taught properly.

    I also find that those people who teach algebra in many cases have never used it themselves to solve a practical problem. Algebra, like mathematics and writing, is a tool to use, not an end in itself, and needs to be taught as such.


    Brian Berenbach
    ACM Distinguished Engineer