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How Algebra Ruins Lives

80% of high school dropouts cited their inability to pass Algebra I as the primary reason for leaving school

F your “F.” Image courtesy of author.

II was 32. I’d long suspected something was wrong, but this was a diagnosis meant for a child, not a grown woman. After eight weeks of embarrassing testing and observation, my assessment advisor delivered my results. He opened a fat file, pulled out a report, and asked what I wanted to hear first.

“I’ll take the bad news. I guess.”

“The bad news is, you have a learning disability.”

“What’s the good news?”

“The good news is, you have a learning disability.”

I didn’t expect to cry. Not at my age, and not in front of this man. But I did. All those years of being told I wasn’t trying hard enough in math, wasn’t paying attention, was daydreaming, was NOT LISTENING, didn’t care enough, was being dramatic, difficult, lazy — all those negative messages about math sunk in and contaminated my confidence. All of it.

Then the assessor, whose name was George, said, “I want to show you something.” It was a graph with numbers. Verbal and comprehension scores that reflected my ability to perform complex language-based analogies and logical reasoning. I scored high. George asked if anyone had worked with me when I was a kid to develop what was (according to his fat report) a huge strength. No, I said. Not that I could remember. “Probably no one noticed because everyone was hyper-focused on your math weakness.”

I wish George had lit a cigarette for us and maybe played some Beck, because what he was about to say was so personal, so honest. He wasn’t the type of Learning Disability Advisor who ran around saying this to all the girls. George was different. “Truth is,” he said, brushing the hair from my posterior parietal cortex, “No tutor, no professor, no teacher in the world could ever have made you better at math.”

I’m sorry. What? What are you saying, George?

He showed me a graph of how my brain processes information (specifically working memory) and showed me the disconnect. “It’s like trying to cross from one mountain cliff to another,” he said. “It can’t be done without a bridge. You have no bridge, Anastasia.”

I walked out of his office in a fog. Decades of tears, of arguing with my dad when he tried to help me, the disappointed teachers, the parade of bad grades, the “shows little/no improvement” comments — I took them all to heart. I had been taught, effectively, to think the worst of myself: I was either really dumb or really lazy. I knew I wasn’t lazy because I tried SO hard. That left me, as a kid, to believe I was stupid. When really, all that time, I had no bridge.

Math is good. Math is important. Let’s all give math a hug. But we’re doing it wrong. We’re spending the first two decades of human development drilling kids with questions like: “If Johnny has 7 pancakes and Billy has 19, how many cats can they fit in a bag?” When what we should be asking is: “If Johnny is black, and Billy is white, how much more likely is it that Johnny will be shot by a policeman?”

Algebra and empathy. Both are important, but only one should be a required skill for moving forward in life. How often do you use quadratic equations to solve conflicts in team meetings? And yet algebra is treated as a necessary, indispensable, deeply important life skill. If we were a tribal culture we’d send our young men into the wilderness with a pencil and tell them not to come back until they can divide integers.

Raise your hand if your child feels tyrannized by abstract math. Raise your hand if you think our society would be better served if we spent more time learning skills that solve real-life problems — like finance, budgeting, and the ultimate life-skill: How not to be an asshole.

Kids can quit school when they’re 16. We have precious little time to shape young minds and we’re blowing it. Americans don’t know how to communicate their wants and needs without shooting each other or beating their wife. Trump is president because his suggestion to knock the crap out of people either appeals to voters, or it doesn’t bother them. Both indicate a diseased American mindset.

We are not a dysfunctional society because we lack algebra skills, we are dysfunctional because we’ve never been systematically taught how to respond to problems without anger.

Here’s an idea: Since teaching impractical math takes up a lot of time, make it elective rather than mandatory. You math brains can go for it! Dive head first into those proofs, then go to college and build us a rocket to the moon. Teachers can use precious class time to teach practical math, such as personal finance. Most of us need time to nail the basics, time we’re not getting because teachers are under pressure to meet standards that require all students (regardless of aptitude) to master advanced mathematics.

Well-to-do parents, you’re lucky. You can afford years of private tutors for your kid. Or maybe your kid picks up math the way a sponge picks up water or a dog takes to a bone. Lucky again. The rest of us raffle losers end up quitting school over math, or we don’t go to college because the advanced math requirement is a huge barrier. In 2010, a national U.S. Department of Education study found that 80 percent of high school dropouts cited their inability to pass Algebra I as the primary reason for leaving school.

A conversation with math:

Math: You want to be a first grade teacher? How do you expect to get into college with those math scores, let alone survive college math? (Laughs. Shakes head.)

You: But I would never use trigonometry as a first grade teacher. I’m really good with kids. I love literature, and my language and writing scores are high. I shine when I’m —

Math: You expect me to trust first graders with someone like you? You expect me to believe you’re a well-rounded, intelligent, trustworthy individual despite your math scores, and that you should have the same opportunities as my friend Barb here? Have you seen Barb’s SAT and ACT math scores?

You: I know Barb. She’s always been good at math. Math doesn’t make her cry.

Math: I make you cry?

You: Yes. I hate you. I’m sorry, but a lot of people hate you. You’re ruining our lives. You’re a life ruiner.

Math: You fail to see how beautiful I am. How powerful. Without me, modern civilization wouldn’t exist.

You: Butterflies are beautiful. And mountain tops. And books. And crayons. Have you ever watched a child use the Goldenrod crayon or Burnt Orange to color the rays of —

Math: Get out of here. And don’t come back. Get a warehouse job. Your dreams are dead.

WWe’re crushing talent. Because math. Because math assumes a person can’t have aptitude in other fields. Because math says trinomials are necessary for success. If we let go of the one-size-fits-all math standard, more kids would stay in school and more adults would head back to school later in life. Which is a good thing. Agreed? Agreed.

So here’s the plan: Stop trying to teach chickens to fly. Just stop. Exempt us from algebra and trigonometry. We’re happy down here pecking and scratching the dirt of decimals and percents. Let us go to college without this discriminating requirement. I promise we can contribute positively to society even though we never learned to find vertical asymptotes when graphing rational functions.

Some of you are apoplectic reading this. The thought of not requiring all Americans to master algebra has bulged your eyeballs to Looney Toons proportions. The steam blowing from your ears could boil corn. THE COUNTRY WILL GO DOWN THE TUBES! WE NEED MORE HIGHER MATH, NOT LESS! Calm down. I have a question: Why do you underestimate teachers and their ability to spot talent? They know aptitude when they see it, just like a sports scout. Math prowess does not go unnoticed. (You know who you are, you sexy math tiger you. Rawr.) Folks like me will never build a rocket but we just might build something else if math weren’t standing over us, with its foot crushing our sternum. Let us go, math. You’re being a jerk.

But… if kids aren’t toiling over algebra, then what are they doing to get smart? You mean besides mastering practical math? Here’s a skill many Americans seem to be lacking: how to have a difference of opinion without pummeling their fellow citizen. And this too: critical analysis and how to apply it to a large scope of topics. False news wouldn’t exist if Americans were taught to carefully assess what they read, what they hear, and above all what they choose to believe. Rather than mandatory study of parametric equations, make mandatory the study of rational thinking. Make mandatory the study of ethics, of empathy and the human condition. Knowing how to present a rational, well-reasoned argument with respect for your listener benefits every human being, algebra does not.

Columnist for Human Parts. I believe in Dog. @IWorryAboutYou

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