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"Why Should My Child Take Algebra, Other Than 'Because It's On The SAT?'"

A homeschool parent recently asked me why her child should take Algebra, other than "because it’s on the SAT." As a former math teacher and current developer of instructor-based math courses for homeschoolers, I get this question all the time. Parents understand why basic computational skills are helpful in everyday life, but they are skeptical about the value of learning to solve an equation, simplify a square root, or derive the quadratic formula.

A very simple answer for why a student should move a step beyond the basic computational skills and study Algebra is to develop a mastery of the basic skills. Algebra is like "boot camp" for addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and understanding the relationships between numbers, because it requires extensive use of these skills throughout the course. For example, to solve a polynomial equation, a student may do twenty different calculations in the course of one problem, and on top of all that, they’ll need a strong understanding of the relationships between numbers to be able to determine if their answer makes sense.

One of the most common reasons students struggle with Algebra is that they get bogged down in the computational tasks that they already should know how to do, leaving little energy and concentration left to learn and understand the Algebra concept being taught. Ironically, these are often the students who complain about why they should study Algebra. The answer for them is very simple – because they have not yet gained mastery of their computational skills, and Algebra is the "acid test" that has revealed their weaknesses.

In response to this argument for the value of Algebra, a parent often says that his or her child has already mastered computational skills, as evidenced by the child’s ability to do very complicated calculations in his or her head. Why would students like this need Algebra, since their computational skills and understanding of relationships between numbers are already better than their parents? I would argue that these are exactly the kinds of students who could benefit most from Algebra, but for a very different reason. When I was teaching, I would always have a number of students who had previously made "straight A’s" throughout their math careers, and they would enjoy showing off their "Rain Man-like" ability to do problems in their heads. Inevitably, these students would bomb the first Algebra test, because they had never learned to organize their work on paper.

In Algebra, it doesn’t take long before the problems are too difficult or require too many steps for students to be able to work the problems in their heads. Therefore, all students must learn to organize their work on paper in order to be successful. Transferring one’s thoughts to paper in an efficient and structured way is one of the most valuable lessons that students learn in Algebra. This skill is not only critical for future math courses, but it is an important basic skill for all disciplines, and no course does a better job teaching it than Algebra – for the simple reason that if you don’t know how to organize the problem on paper, you will probably get the answer wrong.

So what if your child is brilliant with computations and a stickler for organization? What is the value of Algebra? If this is the case, your child will then have the opportunity to focus on the most powerful skill that Algebra teaches: Problem solving.

One of the greatest rewards in education is the feeling of satisfaction that comes from battling through a problem for an extended period of time and trusting what you’ve learned in order to come up with your best answer, then checking that answer with the teacher or with the book and finding that it is exactly right. And as students pursue this reward, the development of the patience, discipline, and logical reasoning that is required to see complex problems from beginning to end is one of the great teachings of Algebra.

I strongly believe that to deny a student the experience of rigorous problem-solving by allowing him/her to bypass Algebra is to take away one of the pillars of an education. History, English, and Foreign Language do not provide this opportunity, and the Science courses that do, such as Chemistry and Physics, first require a strong foundation in Algebra.

The basic lessons that students are required to learn in order to be successful in Algebra, such as a mastery of computational skills and relationships between numbers, the ability to organize work on paper, and the extraordinary demands and rewards of problem solving, may form the most powerful argument of all for why a student should take Algebra, other than "because it’s on the SAT."
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Mike Maggart is a former Algebra and Geometry teacher.
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