Revisiting Richard Cohen and Gabriela

By now, you might have read about Richard Cohen’s column that claims algebra is pointless. PZ does a super job of ripping the argument apart, so I won’t repeat what he says. But j.d. went back to the source, and dug a little more into Gabriela’s academic history. Apparently, she skipped 62 out of 93 classes. I realize that when someone fails algebra six times that no single cause can be blamed and that students can and will get discouraged. But you can’t learn if you don’t show up. Maybe Cohen should have included that piece of advice in his letter too.

Despite what Cohen says, algebra does matter:

After dropping out, Gabriela found a $7-an-hour job at a Subway sandwich shop in Encino. She needed little math because the cash register calculated change. But she discovered the cost of not earning a diploma.

“I don’t want to be there no more,” she said, her eyes watering from raw onions, shortly before she quit to enroll in a training program to become a medical assistant.

Could passing algebra have changed Gabriela’s future? Most educators would say yes.

Algebra, they insist, can mean the difference between menial work and high-level careers. High school students can’t get into most four-year colleges without it. And the U.S. Department of Education says success in algebra II and other higher-level math is strongly associated with college completion.

Apprenticeship programs for electricians, plumbers and refrigerator technicians require algebra, which is useful in calculating needed amounts of piping and electrical wiring.

“If you want to work in the real world, if you want to wire buildings and plumb buildings, that’s when it requires algebra,” said Don Davis, executive director of the Electrical Training Institute, which runs apprenticeship programs for union electricians in Los Angeles.

Unless of course, you’re a dumbass journalist who doesn’t actually do anything.

But enough snark. This is the real tragedy (boldface mine):

After dropping out, Gabriela found a $7-an-hour job at a Subway sandwich shop in Encino. She needed little math because the cash register calculated change.

That’s not a problem with algebra, that’s a problem with basic arithmetic. When I was teaching, I found that usually the problem wasn’t with comprehension, but the problem, instead, was rooted in inadequate background knowledge. My guess is that if someone taught Gabriela arithmetic, she could probably understand algebra.

Even a halfwit like Cohen should recognize that subtraction and addition are necessary.

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