Thursday, August 2, 2012

Algebra Problems

There is an article in the New York Times on whether algebra should be something that students are required to master.  The author doesn't think so.

His main point is that algebra just isn't that useful of a skill for most workers, so why learn it?  A main function of schooling is to raise the productivity of our labor force, so why spend valuable classroom time on things that don't do so?

The other issue is that lots of people fail at the subject.  Failing could lead them to drop out of school.  Also, if student's don't pass then they may be ineligible for things like admissions to higher education programs. 

I am not convinced that algebra is so useless for most people.  It's intuitive to me that learning algebra has an effect on a person's higher order thinking skills, which may lead to better later life outcomes.  Also, struggling through something difficult can be a valuable thing for a person.

However, suppose that algebra really adds nothing to a worker's productivity, and it's causing students to flunk out of school.  It can still serve a valuable economic function.

The reason has to do with signaling.  A person's performance in algebra is likely related to lots of characteristics that are difficult to measure like intelligence, motivation, attitudes, etc.  All of these things affect the ability of students to finish school and the productivity of workers.  You can never say that a particular person is less able etc. because they didn't finish algebra, but on average they are.

It's costly to educate students.  A lot of resources go into admissions, administration, student support, and of course instruction, so it's important that students are able and motivated enough to finish their coursework.  It seems perfectly reasonable to me that universities set high bars for mathematics achievement, as the author mentions, even if it has no bearing on the curriculum.  Not all students can make it in every program, and avoiding bad matches, where the student is unable to finish their degree, can be useful for both parties.  I wish they could, but that isn't the world we live in.

The same argument applies for the job market.  Employers spend a lot of time and money on job search and so do employees.  It's important that when an employer hires someone the match is a good one.  Otherwise, the two have to separate, and the game starts all over again.  

If everyone breezes through high school or college without a challenge then a degree loses its signaling power. Signals can help avoid bad matches or help speed up attrition when there is a good chance of that happening anyway.

I still think the main benefits from algebra are that it actually does raise your productivity as a worker, but we should be careful when we consider stripping the curriculum of material that is challenging and a stumbling block, since in some ways that's a feature and not a bug.