A Former Schoolteacher Writes About Algebra And America`s Children
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August 09, 2008, 05:00 AM
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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.