A Former Schoolteacher Writes About Algebra And America's Children
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08/08/08 - A Texan Reminds Us Not To Get Too Enthusiastic About Governor Rick Perry

Re: "No Real Solution"—Arnold Schwarzenegger's Algebra For Dummies By Steve Sailer

Hugh McInnish [email him] writes from Huntsville, AL

Sailer's column on California 's new requirement, advocated by Gov. Schwarzenegger, to have all 7th-graders take Algebra I was especially interesting to me because it vibrated at one of my resonant frequencies.

During the academic year 1963-64 I taught math at a small South Alabama town (salary $4,000;  I retired after a career spanning nine grueling months).  One of my classes was Algebra I for 9th-graders.  The class was small, about a dozen students, and in most respects was homogeneous:  All the students were white and from two-parent, caring families, the kind of families who didn't hesitate to drop in for a chat with the teacher. 

But the homogeneity ended when math ability was considered.  The ability of the students ranged from bright to average to fairly dull. 

I remember with great fondness one particular student.  He was an energetic, engaged student with an appealing personality.  But he was not a gifted algebra student.  I recall especially his difficulty in understanding the rule for multiplying variables with exponents. 

The reader will doubtless remember that Xa x Xb = Xa+b.  But the abstraction was just too slippery for Jerry.  He missed it every time.  Finally he said in desperation, "I'm going to write this on the inside cover of my book, and I'm gonna remember it when I'm dead!"

Well, on the next test I gave them something like "X4 x X5 = ?" and you know what happened.  Jerry missed it.  All he had to do was add 4 and 5, get 9, and write X9 for the answer.

Jerry did not deserve to be scolded.  He just was not a gifted math student.  And of course that's just Sailer's point—and mine.  Not every student is capable of doing Algebra I in the 9th grade, and certainly not in the 7th.  Our classrooms are populated with a certain number of Jerrys, and not the Governor of California, nor the President Of The United States can change that demographic fact. 

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