Algebra I05/17

Algebra 1 has attained the status as a high school graduation requirement based on the generalization that the rigorous content of this demanding course provides a mental discipline that can train the mind’s ability to “think”.

This generalization is based on the “Formal Discipline Theory,” traceable to the ancient Greek assumption that the mind is a mental-muscle structure (much like skeletal muscle) and as such, can systematically be trained to strengthen its functionality!

For example, the rigor of studying Latin and Greek were thought to improve the learning of other academic subjects (transfer of learning). This cultural theory remained in vogue until Edward Thorndyke, one of the foremost learning theorists of all time, completed a series of convincing experimental studies, showing that only “identical elements” are transferable from one learning situation to a different learning situation – thus formulating Thorndyke’s breakthrough “Transfer-of-Learning Theory.”

Subsequently, William James and Charles Judd, two time-honored learning theorists, conducted a series of experimental studies confirming Thorndyke’s theory: unless there is an identical sameness between two different learning situations, transfer of learning does not take place.

Based on the evidence forthcoming from these classic studies, it seems clear the generalizations maintaining Algebra I transfers learning to other subject matter is invalid.

In spite of this convincing evidence, it appears most education policymakers still mandate Algebra I be a requirement for high-school graduation. As a consequence, this onerous course has become a major stumbling block for an endless number of high-school students – especially those at high risk of not graduating from high school.

For example, it has been estimated that 40 percent of the students fail Algebra I the first time they take this required course, which is usually in the ninth grade. Moreover, an estimated 60 percent of the students fail this troublesome course on their second attempt. In this regard, it has been reported that an estimated 90 percent of the students who fail Algebra I do not graduate from high school. Note: Education-Economics (2017) has reported that high-school dropout/non-graduates have been projected to cost the nation an estimated $157 billion every year.

The cause for Algebra I’s course failures can be found by examining the context of this burdensome course. Students find the abstract terms such as exponents, radicals, integers, parametrics, linear equations, trinomials – combined with elements such as letters attached to numbers presented in an equation format – to be frustratingly confronting. This is because those terms differ so drastically from the language students are exposed to in other academic subjects.

Also, non-STEM. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) students fail to see the “relevancy” of Algebra I to their future careers and have difficulty in achieving a state of “readiness” to endure a course they consider meaningless to their future careers.

While Algebra I may be considered an essential course for STEM-career students, it does not appear to be essential for non-STEM-career students such as nurses, farmers, factory workers, trade and construction workers, food and hospitality servers, entertainers, artists, sculptors, sports professionals, non-commissioned military, sales and clerical personnel, first responders, non-STEM teachers, poets, songwriters, fiction writers.

In review of the critical problems emanating from an Algebra I mandate, the following initiative seems most meaningful. Make Algebra I an elective! And encourage at-risk students to opt out of enrolling in Algebra I and register for a “consumer Math” course featuring interest rates, credit card risks, mortgage costs, checking-savings accounts, and other select consumer transactions.

Making this course an elective will make Algebra I classes more homogeneous so math teachers may be more course specific in fulfilling STEM-career students’ advanced-mathematic needs.


Make Algebra I an elective and attenuate costly high school dropout/non-graduations

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