You may remember just a few years ago that no one -- and that means no one! – was to get a California high school degree without knowing algebra.  That was a major part of the No Child Left Behind program.  So, everyone in high school had to go into an algebra class for a year before they could graduate.

The first year of this approach was much of a disaster, and yet not hopeless.  It was generally understood among educators that there was no bionic reason for some students learning algebra immediately and others never seemingly being able to learn it at all.  I have come to believe it is a great myth that it is a simple matter of brain power, that it is all about some students having better brains than others. The reason is that our brain is just an organ, and the vast majority of us people just have average workable brains just as we have average workable livers, just like our kidneys, just like our skin, and there is surely no debate that some people carry around better skin than do others.

The real debate should be about the cultural differences that make some students better than others in our schools.  And if you can steer the students who don’t do well in algebra into conversation about it, I think you will invariably hear that algebra “has no role in real life.”

And I have found that this cultural difference goes into why some students learn algebra and other never learn it. You can easily hear that the ones who never learn it say that they will never use it after high school, so why waste time learning something useless that is no fun to begin with?

It is a saying that usually comes from their parents. who have probably said the same thing when they were in school.

But the students who actually relish algebra will very often relish the much more the higher high math that they will move into later.  For these students, algebra is the beginning of a deductive thinking regimen that should then spread into everything else they learn, including any ambitious subject in law school.  In fact, my own feeling is that algebra is probably an even more important training in logic than law school.  This is not because I have attended law classes – in fact I have not – but because algebra is capable of teaching logic to a much wider population than has any law school.

But perhaps I am really prevaricating a little here, because I hate to really to say here how Californian public schools are now getting around the problem of teaching algebra to “everyone” including those students who really can’t stand to learn it.

Basically, it is done by re-teaching largely resistant students mostly elementary school mathematics to students what they only call “Algebra” on the course title.  But there is no algebra in the course work

I have learned this by visiting these classes, again and again, and I have yet to see anything resembling the classic symbolization of algebra in any of these Algebra 1 daily assignments.

Of course, it is possible that I have simply been absent on those days when these classes have been given an actual algebra lesson, but the odds are against it.  I have been in these classes again and again, throughout the year, and I have not yet seen any work done representing the definition of algebra.

On the other hand, there is another group of students who go to actual algebra classes, and they are being taught and given work that is algebra in all its dimensions. 

So the laws concerning algebra being taught to everyone in the California schools now come down to this:  The students who have always applied themselves well in true algebra classes will continue to do so. And the students who have no interest in algebra will now go to fake algebra classes that they will pass because the subject matter is really largely sixth grade math or even lower, with maybe a tiny bit of algebraic expression thrown in, and thus virtually everyone in California will be passing an “algebra” course, as the state expects.

My own feeling is that it is more important to pass a course in plain honesty.


Chris Sharp- Commentary

Chris Sharp is an Educator and a prize-winning professional writer. He has recently published a new book titled How to Like a Human Being . Sharp's latest book is an Amazon Kindle collection of his published short stories, Every Kind of Angel . His commentaries represent his own opinions and not necessarily the views of any organization he may be affiliated with or those of The SCV Beacon.