Saunders: Algebra may cause angst, but it's worth it

bsaunders@newsobserver.comFebruary 13, 2013 

The Rev. Tyrone Gilchrist used to always say, “God may not get there when you want him, but He’s always right on time.”

Not this time, He wasn’t.

Four decades after I sat in Mr. Slick Richardson’s algebra class praying that he wouldn’t call upon me to solve a problem and that algebra itself would just disappear, God – or the California Board of Education – has dropped the requirement that its eighth-graders must take it.

Combined with a recent news report showing that some local teachers no longer instruct their pupils in cursive writing, it’s conceivable that at some point a “good” education may consist simply of being able to type your name on a keypad.

Educational elitists and school systems anxious to keep overall test scores elevated have long tried excluding certain students from algebra. And while the more math phobic among them may herald such a strategy, others decry it as the educational equivalent of waving the white flag.

I decry it because, frankly, why shouldn’t today’s students be subjected to the same misery we were?

Essential algebra

Richard Townsend hates the thought of excluding algebra, too, but only because he thinks it is essential to a well-rounded education. He said it provides students with an intellectual component they’ll need later.

“One thing algebra does is train your brain to think critically,” Townsend told me Wednesday. “Ninety percent of people who take algebra won’t ever use it as ‘algebra,’ but they’ll use it when they get a job. If you’re out on a job, the boss is going to say, ‘I want you to fix this problem.’

“He’s not going to tell you, ‘Do this and this and this.’ If he’s going to do that, he might as well do it himself. He’s going to expect you to figure out how to get it done. Algebra helps train your brain for that kind of problem-solving.”

Townsend teaches college algebra at N.C. Central University, so he obviously was one of those rare freaks you knew in school who loved math, right?

“Actually, no,” Townsend said. “I was a health and P.E. major in undergraduate school because I wanted to coach basketball. That was my dream.”

‘A good thing’

But after three or four years teaching and coaching in middle school, Townsend didn’t like it.

“I went back and got a master’s degree in math education. I had to go back and play catch-up at the University of Tennessee,” Townsend said. “I’d had one year of algebra in high school and really, really loved it. I wanted to take algebra II, but I knew that the person teaching it was a terrible teacher. So I didn’t.

“I think introducing them to algebra (in eighth grade) is a good thing.”

He added that many of the college students he sees would benefit from an earlier introduction.

Townsend said there are several reasons why California dropped its algebra requirement for eighth-graders and why North Carolina schools have struggled for years with the decision of whether to drop it, keep it or restrict who takes it. “I read that one of the reasons is that they’re blaming it on students not being ready,” he said. “Different students have different learning styles, and if you’re trying a one-size-fits-all approach, it’s not going to work.

“You’ve got some students who learn well audibly, you’ve got some who learn visually, and then some learn by just doing, by being hands on. You’ve got to give it to them in a way they can relate to.”

Yeah, and maybe then they won’t have to hide behind the person seated in front of them praying that Slick Richardson doesn’t call on them. or 919-836-2811

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