I missed most of the fireworks, but apparently Algebra 2 was on a lot of minds the other day.

I'm going to +1, or Like, or Heart or whatever this statement. The course designated Algebra 2 manufactured by your average textbook is the worst thing in the world. It could be really interesting, but it's foundations are fake. The problem is, everyone is scared to tell the kids it's all fake.

The Texas Standards defining Algebra 2 are five pages (Algebra 1 is five, Geometry and Pre-Cal are six for comparison), and use the phrase "real-world" three times and the word "life" three times. It's really just a list of a random assortment of things. No suggestions on just how you might want to wrap what you're trying to sell. Naturally, your textbook/teacher just fakes it. "Oh, well it's important to know the real and imaginary roots of a 4th degree polynomial because......" or "Logarithms are excellent models for...."

Just stop it.

When I taught Algebra 2 traditionally I got exactly what I deserved, kids remembered 30% of a random list of things and saw very few connections between them. The topics sat in their silos as we kept checking the boxes on the list. And I sat in meetings wondering when the kids would ever get it.

There's a tangent argument about that view and the design of college math placement exams, but maybe another time.

Ok, Algebra 2 sucks. Thanks for sharing, you say.

I'm not sure how I can raise my hand more enthusiastically or force my pro Alg 2 thoughts into the timeline (I spent like, all of 2013-14 talking about it). I embarked on a really crazy experiment a few years ago and the results were eye opening. The work remains unfinished, but it was an important foundation. If you cut the bullshit, there are some interesting things in this course. But locally, I couldn't get anyone to listen to me. Because the textbooks didn't agree with me. And following a textbook is easier.

But I wouldn't change my approach. My students responded because I was honest about what I was trying to teach them. I stated a specific goal. We're going to do a lot of impractical things here. I'm not going to lie to you about their uses. It was going to be a math class for the sake of learning math. This is going to be an experience in Math Language, not Literature. And we're skipping all the big time nonsense (shout out to complex conjugates and 4th degree polynomial solutions!). Algebraic manipulation, while not particularly real world, can be interesting to a seemingly uninterested population. It's not an insane proposition.

At the end of the year, when we spent a LOT of time talking math sentence structure and grammar, I opened up our discussions. I showed them modeling and authentic scenarios. We had the kind of big idea conversations you want in a math course.

Most of their course work was fake work in a fake world. It was variable and coefficient manipulation. Over and over. It was verifying algebra with graphs. Over and over. But I can tell you this intrepid group was with me the whole way. Disinterested is not a word I would use to describe them at all. They enjoyed being good at Algebra because I wasn't trying to fake the purpose of Algebra (nor did I overload them, a lot of material was cut).

Conclusion

In my opinion, the goal of Algebra 2 is to expand a student's vocabulary (insert "toolbox" or other cute ed-metaphor here) of mathematical functions. It's a lot of fake stuff that regular people (and even me outside of teaching contexts) never use. Much of the content needs to go. The entire focus of what the content is needs to change (widely applicable processes vs function family checklist). But more students could be taught to appreciate the underlying ideas, as long as we're stuck with it.

I don't know, I'm at a loss at what else to say. The amalgamation that is Algebra 2 can be saved, it can be done in interesting ways, real live (not just the math weirdo) random kids can be taught to appreciate the beauty of what's going on. You just have to be honest.

To the broader argument of Algebra 2 being some sort of necessary force to getting kids into college? That's junk. And I agree with Dan on the misguided power we've given the course. This is a problem that starts at the top. College Algebra and Math Placement Exams are fake products and students who are successful in them have fake knowledge. Until you admit that's the problem, you're going to keep staring blankly at the wall wondering why 19 year olds who just want study political science hate rational expressions.

I'd love to know if I've missed something in this whole kerfuffle.

Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon