And yet, in March, the high school principal, Luke Brooks, asked Illinois lawmakers to stop requiring algebra.
Speaking to a House education committee, Brooks said algebra “...is the number one failed course in my high school and most schools around; it’s the number one failed in community college.”
He said sure, 90 percent of his students would still opt for the traditional path of Algebra I, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus. But what about the kid who just wanted to be a welder and got so frustrated he dropped out?
“We scream college and we whisper career,” Brooks told the committee. “And these kids who want to go into careers and have a skill set — we will give up financial literacy, statistics, construction math — and we basically, for lack of a better term, we just slide that away and say, ‘You must know this,’ even though most statistics will tell you less than maybe 7 percent of the working world uses algebra. I just think it’s disingenuous of a lot of adults to say ‘This is what human intelligence is.’ ”
State Rep. Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville), who is on the committee, immediately asked to be listed as a chief co-sponsor of his bill. That might seem surprising considering her resume. She has a degree in mathematics from Rutgers University, a masters in mathematics from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, plus certification in mathematics education from Tulane University in New Orleans.
Stuart also taught math in grades six through 12. The Pleasant Plains principal’s plea to create a path for non-math kids really resonated with her.
“We need some other type of course,” Stuart says. “We need to offer our juniors and seniors more of these applied mathematics — financial mathematics, or a real in-depth look into probability issues, or anything like that — to give them an option, as opposed to what we think of as a traditional pre-calculus course.”
Stuart says although she personally “loves trigonometry,” she also understands that most people don’t.
“Trigonometry really puts the world together, if you understand what’s going on,” she says. “But you can understand the world without understanding trigonometry.”
In fact, at SIUE, Stuart helped create a course called Quantitative Reasoning, to replace the traditional math requirement that stymied so many students. Still, she’s not willing to grant Brooks’ wish to get rid of algebra altogether.
“I can’t see it being responsible in getting rid of any algebra requirement at all,” she says. “I think it’s important. So I’m not willing to just say three years of (any) math carte blanche.”
She negotiated an amendment that keeps the Algebra I requirement, but allows geometry to be taught as a component of an “integrated, applied, interdisciplinary or career and technical course,” such as carpentry.
Rep. Mike Murphy (R-Springfield) filed both the original bill and the amendment. Married to a school teacher who retired after 31 years in the classroom, Murphy obviously has empathy for his constituent, Principal Brooks.
“You know the number one reason kids drop out of college is they can’t pass math,” he says. “I saw this report online the other day: 27 percent [of dropouts] is because they fail, and math is the number one thing they fail.”
But Murphy also hopes to dig into the broader problem.
“One of my plans to do this summer is, I want to put together a little study group, task force, or whatever you want to call it, on why are we failing in math?” he says. “What are we doing as a country? What are we doing as a state? I don’t have that answer.”
Meanwhile, the amended bill won unanimous approval in the House, and is headed for a vote in the full Senate.