Hawaii high school students are required to take algebra. Should they be?

Hawaii high school students are required to take algebra. Should they be?
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Algebra tends to elicit a visceral reaction in most folks: You either love it or you hate it.

Well, a new book is taking the argument to another level. College professor and author Andrew Hacker is asking whether most students need it.

In his new book, "The Math Myth and other STEM Delusions," Hacker challenges the notion that advanced mathematics should be a fundamental cornerstone of a well-rounded high school education.

He says the time has come to stop forcing students to take algebra.

"At best, 1 out of 20 people will need algebra in their jobs and they don't even use it every day," Hacker said, in a phone interview with Hawaii News Now.

But local mathematicians are quick to criticize Hacker's argument.

Michelle Manes, associate professor of mathematics at UH-Manoa, says Hacker makes good arguments and draws "a lot of really bad conclusions from those arguments."

She adds, "He contradicts himself on numerous occasions. He offers logical fallacies."

The utility of algebra isn't a new discussion, but it's not as common to hear a respected intellectual argue it shouldn't be required for high school students.

Hawaii public high school students must take three credits of math -- one credit of algebra, one credit of geometry, and one math elective -- to graduate with a diploma.

Hacker's argument comes amid a growing push to bolster math and science education in the United States, and to interest more students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

Hacker says the rise of the tech industry doesn't mean "everyone is going to need advanced algebra even to keep a job. It's a total myth."

Dewey Gottlieb, who helps oversees math standards for the state Department of Education, said it's "partially true" that most people won't need advanced math in their everyday adult lives.

But he says that's no excuse for getting rid of algebra as a requirement.

"We want to make sure when they leave us, our kids have a multitude of opportunities available to them," he said. "We don't want to set up a curriculum path for them that denies them access to various career fields of study."

Hacker is proposing that students who aren't interested in entering math-heavy fields be given the option to take classes where they learn tangible, practical applications for math.

"We develop skills like how to read a corporate report or how to analyze the federal budget," he said.

Manes, the math professor, says that logic just doesn't add up.

"Mathematics teaches you to think flexibly, solve problems. A lot of skills that are quite frankly, lacking in Hacker's book," she said. Manes offers a counterpoint text to Hacker's book: Joe Boaler's "What's Math Got to do with it?"

Copyright 2016 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.