Friday, July 21, 2017

If the KKK Made This Claim, We Would All Laugh

Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads.
It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you're not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?
That's the argument Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, made today in an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel....
The second thing I'd say is yes, this is a civil rights issue, but this is also something that plagues all Americans — particularly low-income Americans. If you think about all the underemployed or unemployed Americans in this country who cannot connect to a job in this economy — which is unforgiving of those students who don't have a credential — the biggest barrier for them is this algebra requirement. It's what has kept them from achieving a credential.
Essentially, she is arguing that poor people and especially blacks aren't capable of learning algebra.  As a former Poor-American, I reject her claim completely.


  1. If? White supremacists were making such claims for years. They had pseudo scientific papers on the "inferiority of the negro mind." How their bone structure was like that of apes. Bull like that.

    How little difference there is in racial politics. The same argument as to one's own color, or another, entirely dependent on whether its expected to work.

    Throw out all principle, what do you have left?

  2. Algebra is not "advanced math".

    "Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house. - R.A.H."

  3. The problem isn't that algebra is hard, it's that math teachers (at middle and high school levels, especially) are horrible at their jobs.

  4. The idea that only STEM majors need algebra also completely misses the point. It isn't the specific mathematical details of algebra that are important -- knowing how to factor equations, use the quadratic formula, and so on.

    Success at algebra requires learning some broader mental skills. The ability to move smoothly between different levels of abstraction. Taking something that is a concrete at one level and viewing it as an instance of a more general type at another level. Figuring out how to track down an answer under conditions of incomplete information. Understanding how constraints both limit viable solutions and direct investigation. Etc.

    These skills are not strictly mathematical, but without them you will bounce off algebra like a brick wall. Consequently, passing algebra is a signifier that you *can* apply these skills -- and it's hard to think of a job much above manual labor that doesn't benefit substantially from them.

    Are there people out there who struggle with algebra for other reasons? Of course. But in my experience the people who fail basic algebra over and over do so because they suffer from much more basic failures in thinking skills, that would harm their career prospects in any field, not just STEM. Removing the filter won't fix the problem.

  5. Fidel: There are a lot of bad math teachers, usually the ones who received A all the way through their math education, and have not a clue how hard it is to learn it.

    Kyle: Complete agreement. Some abilities reflect intelligence. Must find a career path for those lacking that, other than diversity coordinator in HR.

  6. What irritates me is that the "informed" also say, because we don't have enough STEM graduates we need the H-1B immigrant workers. I mention this because many of the workers we are bringing in also can't do Algebra.

  7. Robert Heinlein addressed the problem of the straight-A student going into teaching math in Space Cadet, when his protagonist was tapped to teach a math class after he had struggled to master the material himself. The administrator who assigned him said something to the effect that he was ideal for teaching the subject because he understood not understanding it.