Interview with University of Maryland Mathematics Professor Jerome Dancis
January 2, 2006
Why is it important for students who do not plan to pursue math or technology in college to learn real algebra?
According to civil rights activist Dr. Robert Moses, math literacy (and algebra literacy) is a civil rights issue. In his book “Radical Equations” Dr. Moses states that “the most urgent social issue affecting poor people and people of color is economic access. In today’s world, economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy.” xi Verbal literacy, says Moses, is no longer enough. Algebra “now is the gatekeeper for citizenship; and people who don’t have it are like the people who couldn’t read and write in the Industrial Age.” xii
For many students, learning Algebra is crucial to obtaining their first or second choices for a career or college major. The lack of an appropriate math background is especially problematic because math builds on itself. Students arriving in college, not fluent in Arithmetic and Algebra, often do poorly in remedial math in college and then drop out.
Finally, real algebra in high school is important because it helps develop abstract thinking and problem solving skills. My son-in-law is a linguist and he tells me that algebra helped him understand things in linguistics. There is a certain amount of abstract thinking and problem solving involved in algebra and problem solving is useful for anything. There is very little problem solving in other high school subjects such as History and English.
Shouldn’t professors from Colleges of Mathematics also have a say in how math is taught in public schools?
Only if the top priority is a good math curriculum. It’s not only that we know math but we also know what students need to know when they enter college.
College mathematics, science and social studies professors have little if any voice in determining state education policies. For example, in 2001 the Maryland Mathematics Commission released a report that included recommendations for changing math education in Maryland. xxi The only professor of mathematics on the Maryland Mathematics Commission (with a Math Ph.D.) was regularly outvoted as a minority of one.
The Commission report disparages the traditional high school mathematics curriculum, which is mostly real algebra. The report advocates Reform Math courses in data analysis, statistics, probability, and discrete mathematics. However, without this disparaged traditional background, only superficial courses in data analysis, statistics, probability, and discrete mathematics, as well as high school physics are possible.
x California State Board of Education. Standards and Frameworks. http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/
xi Dionne, Jr., E.J. (6 March 2001). Into the Math Mix. The Washington Post, pg. A.23. As leader of the Mississippi Voter Rights Project, Dr. Moses was one of the ten most important civil rights activists in the1960s. Moses has a Harvard Ph.D. in the philosophy of mathematics. For the past decade he has been organizing the Algebra Project.
xii Dionne, Jr., E.J. (6 March 2001). Into the Math Mix. The Washington Post, pg. A.23.
xxi Maryland State Department of Education. (2001).Keys to Math Success: A Report from the Maryland Mathematics Commission. http://www.msde.state.md.us/Special_ReportsandData/keys.pdf
Dr. Dancis is currently an an official of the state of California, appointed by the California State Board of Education to be a Content Review Panel (CRP) member. He is charged with ensuring that four mathematics textbook series, submitted for adoption for the Grades 4-7 Intervention Program are accurate and aligned to the especially good California mathematics standards.
You can access the entire interview here.
For a more complete listing of Professor Jerome Dancis' articles and positions on the teaching of mathematics, a visit to his homepage would certainly be worth your time.