Debunking the Myths Behind ‘The Math Myth’

The Atlantic, commentary, 6-13-2016

A political scientist recently argued that teaching people anything beyond arithmetic is useless, and that requiring algebra in high school drives the country’s dropout rates. Here’s why he’s wrong.

When the political scientist Andrew Hacker published The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions earlier this year, he didn’t break the internet. But he certainly stirred up the math establishment in arguing that anything more complicated than arithmetic is useless to most people, that requiring algebra in high school is an obstacle that drives the country’s dropout rates, and that the Common Core’s approach to math, which calls for more complex math like trigonometry, is a mistake.

As a journalist who has made math education her beat for a while now, I have been fascinated by the whole debacle, in part because many of Hacker’s arguments are more than a century old.

While I agreed with him that for many, failing a math course can derail them from college, never mind graduation, he lost me when he insisted struggling students shouldn’t have to bother with more abstract math. The teenaged me would have rejoiced outwardly at no longer being forced to deal with functions—but inwardly, it would have been the confirmation of my groundless fears: Sorry, you’re too stupid to even try this.

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