18 September, 2012

The importance of algebra

The late Sir Paul Callaghan was very passionate about the importance of science and technology to our future economic success. He made the oft-repeated point that kids will take up science and engineering if they and their parents are excited by the career opportunities.  Creating that excitement is the responsibility of industry, not just “the government”, but I add a proviso: children must be taught maths well in their earlier years. The ability to understand algebra at age 13 is a key indicator of future earnings, whatever career is chosen.  It demonstrates not only mathematical ability, but also abstract reasoning  and logic.   Algebra is good for future artists and lawyers, not just the technically-minded. 

But the big worry about algebra is that if children haven’t grasped its basic concepts  by Year 9 of their schooling (the old 3rd form), they’ll turn away from the physical sciences and technologies, choking our future supply of scientists, engineers, trades-people and technicians.  By implication, we need middling students to be competent in algebra too.  I have huge respect for good maths teachers - they helped make me who I am.  I just wish that there were more of them - teaching at all levels, not just the brightest students.  Average students who understand basic algebra have far more options.  To paraphrase Professor Callaghan, “If they have the maths, we can take care of the rest“.

Footnote: Beginning in 2000, the California Department of Education identified seventh- and eighth-grade enrolment in intermediate algebra as important data to track in the its standard data collection.   To quote one study:
Research has shown a relationship between future earnings and courses taken in high school. Some of the strongest relationships are between earnings and the number and type of math courses (Rose and Betts, 2001). In turn, courses taken in high school depend on the preparation students receive in middle school. Therefore, it is important to look at access to algebra, type of algebra available, and enrollment in the classes that signal the most-advanced middle school students.

Anne Danenberg, Christopher Jepsen, Pedro Cerdán, 2002
Student and School Indicators for Youth in California’s Central Valley
Page 35, Chapter 5: Middle and High School Courses and Enrollment
Access to Algebra in Middle Schools
First posted 16 November 2007

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