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Radical Equations

By David Levine

One of the book's core arguments is that students must master algebra to succeed in the workplace of the future. They cite Labor Department statistics that 70 percent of current jobs require "technology literacy" and that by 2010 all jobs will require "significant technical skills." Increasingly, essential technological expertise has come to mean relatively sophisticated understanding of how to use computers to perform a multitude of vocational tasks. To fully master computers, they argue, students need to be comfortable manipulating symbolic repre- sentations which represent "underlying mathematical concepts." They further argue that our society has designated algebra as the place where young people acquire such skills.

This cornerstone argument needs further documentation to be fully creditable. The phrases "technology literacy" and "significant technical skills" are quite general. We need to know if such literacy and skills specifically include algebraic thinking. Another issue is the varied impact of increased computer use on different occupations. The computerization of a job does not always bring the need for more sophisticated intellectual skills. Many low-paying service jobs have incorporated computer use which require learning some new procedures, but not mastering substantially more demanding cognitive tasks. The authors would have been more persuasive if they had offered concrete examples of how algebraic skills are used in particular jobs, and evidence that such jobs are or will become a major part of our evolving economy.

Nevertheless, Cobb and Moses are not wrong to assert that algebra functions as a crucial gatekeeper to full economic opportunity. Even if a young person is not drawn toward a highly technical vocation, high school algebra is usually required for college entry. In addition, algebra provides knowledge necessary for advanced math which prepares students for a number of technical and scientific careers. Too many students of color lose these options through poor math performance before they reach high school. As Cobb and Moses note, part of this problem is reflected in Ph.D. statistics for technical fields. In 1995, Blacks were 15 percent of the U.S. population but earned "only 1.8 percent of the Ph.D.s in computer science, 2.1 percent of those in engineering, 1.5 percent in the physical sciences, and 0.6% in mathematics." Finally, even though the authors could have presented stronger evidence regarding the relevance of algebra to adult employment, the technological evolution of many occupations does support their case. An understanding of algebraic concepts can help workers become more adept at working with spreadsheets, graphs, and databases. Our computer-based economy increasingly calls for such skills, even outside of highly technical fields.


In assessing initiatives such as Algebra Project, a crucial question is whether the program is meeting its stated goals.

In Bessemer, Ala., teachers at Hart Elementary, a school of mostly poor, Black children, started participating in the Algebra Project in the fall of 1991 while teachers at the predominantly white West Hills, one of the "top elementary schools" in the district, continued with traditional math instruction. During a three-year study initiated in 1995, Hart moved from trailing West Hills on standardized math tests by several points to exceeding it by a few points, compiling the highest scores in the district.

Radical Equations and other Algebra Project reports are filled with similar success stories. They also document instances in which Algebra Project students register in greater numbers than their peers in higher-level math courses. As Cobb and Moses tell the Algebra Project story, they weave into their narrative extended testimonials from parents, teachers, and students which provide both penetrating explanations of the reform process and many examples of how the program has helped students learn more.

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