Reality Check: Does Anybody Care What Andrew Hacker Thinks?

So I’m just trying to figure out who, if anybody, cares what Andrew Hacker thinks about math education.

This is an earnest question.

At least since 2012, when he had an opinion piece in the NYT, he has been going on about how we should stop requiring “advanced” math, from algebra up, in schools. He was in the NYT twice again recently and has a new book out about it.

Now, of course both math educators and mathematicians are going to “care” in the sense that it annoys us. We are spending all this time trying to figure out how to improve students’ appreciation for and understanding of algebra etc., and out comes this dude talking about “scrap that whole project.” I remember there being at least a few responses in the MTBoS back in 2012, although Dan Meyer’s and Patrick Honner’s are the only ones I remember specifically. (Dan had some more fun with it a few years later.) And I was moved to write this reading mathematician Evelyn Lamb’s piece in Slate responding to Hacker’s book. (Dan’s responses succinctly summarize Hacker’s lack of imagination. Mr. Honner sees algebra in what Hacker wants to replace algebra with. And if you want to get more into the details, go read Lamb’s piece, it’s great.)

But annoying math teachers and mathematicians is definitely not the same thing as being remotely relevant. I mean, he is suggesting to do away with required algebra precisely at the point in history when, between the Common Core, the increasing quantity and stakes of standardized testing, and the incessant press handwringing about international competitiveness,[1] it seems to me that math, including advanced math, is more centrally ensconced in the curriculum than it’s ever been. (In my lifetime anyway. Possible historical exception of the immediate post-Sputnik era.) Is anybody taking him remotely seriously?

Yes, he has coverage in the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Ed. This doesn’t answer the question. He’s being intentionally provocative and succeeding in getting a rise. Is anybody taking his proposals seriously?

I eagerly await your thoughts.


Postscript: Let me indulge myself to go ahead and give you my take, just for the record. Disclaimer that I haven’t read his book. I’m going on the 3 NYT pieces.

At the level of fundamental goals, he is upset about the fact that so many Americans have traumatic experiences with their math education, meanwhile graduating without basic numeracy needed for citizenship, and he wants to do something about it. I’m not mad at this, nor could I be.

I’m also sort of delighted that being a public intellectual counts for enough that this 86-year-old Queens College political scientist can mouth off in the NYT whenever he wants. I hope that when I’m 86, the NYT still exists and I can mouth off in it whenever I want.

But on to the merits themselves. I think he sees a real problem but I, like Dan, think he lacks imagination about both (a) what math education could be, and (b) what math is for – he doesn’t get it as a domain of human inquiry, or an intellectual inheritance, just as a tool, so he applies a utilitarian standard to it I’m sure he’d never apply to history, or art, say. But also, (c) I think he misdiagnoses the problem if he thinks removing required algebra (and up) will solve it. Algebra isn’t the first point in the curriculum where massive numbers of American children jump ship emotionally. This is already happening with fractions, and may begin much earlier. Hacker would never propose to take fractions, or even more fundamental stuff, out of the curriculum, since it’s obviously (even to him) part of the “citizen mathematics” he champions.[2] Doing a good job teaching math is a problem to be solved, not avoided. Finally, (d) I think he would probably puke if he really thought through the antidemocratic implications of a general public without advanced technical literacy while all the contemporary centers of power – finance, info tech, biotech, etc. – are technocratic and growing more so. He sometimes argues that you don’t need to know algebra to learn to code. Depends on what you are coding I suppose, but in any case this is beside the point. Sergey Brin does know algebra. Jamie Dimon does too.

Update 4/5: Sam Shah sends this graphic of number of people on feedly who “saved” or “favorited” Hacker’s Feb. 27 piece (which is about what he wants to replace algebra with):


Update 6/28: Patrick Honner wrote something relevant on the Math for America blog back in May – When It Comes to Math Teaching, Let’s Listen to Math Teachers.

[1] I’m only lumping these three things (CCSSM, high-stakes testing, and international-comparison handwringing) together from the point of view that all three seem to me to be moves in the direction of consolidating the consensus on the centrality of math in contemporary American education. I do not have them confused with each other and I don’t feel the same way about each of the three at all. For exmaple, I basically dig the CCSSM but (as any regular reader of this blog knows) I do not at all dig high-stakes testing.

[2]Patrick Honner’s post points out that Hacker’s notion of “citizen mathematics” almost surely involves algebra as well…


3 thoughts on “Reality Check: Does Anybody Care What Andrew Hacker Thinks?

  1. People should care about what he says, and not because it is him. These notions are quite popular, and although I personally like the common core, with some fairly serious editing, it is clearly designed by mathematicians to provide a firm foundation for the further study of math, and not for the “non mathematical”. It is too abstract, for example the stuff on “real numbers”. Absolutely no-one in the non academic world needs or cares about “real numbers”. Calculators don’t “do” real numbers, engineers don’t use real numbers. There are other areas as well which go too nitty gritty. But at the same time how many kids can put a simple formula into a spreadsheet?
    These are my thoughts today !

    1. Hmm, not sure what you’re referring to in the CCSSM. Not sure why engineers are the measure of what matters to nonmathematicians (what about the biology/chemistry/physics, economics/sociology/psychology/urban planning/law, and math as a disciplinary lens on the world alongside all the others?), but in any case the standards I could find –

      – seem relevant enough to engineers. (Arguably not the rational/irrational distinction. I’d be open to a conversation about not including that, although it makes my heart cry a little, but it’s not clear to me that’s what you’re suggesting anyway. Were these the standards you had in mind?)

      1. I have read the CCSSM numerous times, and have to agree with you that they are not too heavy. My comment is really about examples of what I have seen that people are actually doing in the classroom in HS, as some of it is “beyond”. Half open intervals on the number line, excessive work with radicals, and more. It may be that Algebra 2 is not part of the Common Core, but this is unclear.
        I chose engineers as they are probably the heaviest users of math “out there”.
        I also think that some of the problems have arisen from the monumental stupidity of handing the testing to an outfit that considers teachers to have no valid opinions, and to hide behind “intellectual property rights”.

        Sorry, I am rambling a bit !

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