The Importance of Algebra: How Common Core Helps Students Build a Strong Understanding of Math

iStock_000020788882_SmallAuthor and Queens College professor Andrew Hacker suggests college- and career-readiness benchmarks are too high and high schools should remove Algebra as a graduation requirement, Breitbart News reports. “At the very time we should be honing and sharpening quantitative reasoning skills we punch students into algebra, geometry, calculus,” Hacker says. “The Math People take over and ignore much simpler needs…And this is getting worse with the Common Core.”

Instead of weakening and lowering academic expectations, as Hacker suggests, policymakers should focus on raising the bar—and getting students over it. That begins by helping students build a strong foundation of numbers fluency at early grades, and then creating a steady progression of learning to higher-level materials. By doing so, educators will empower most young people to develop confidence in math, not avoid it entirely.

Common Core State Standards help students build conceptual understanding of numbers and functions by encouraging the use of multiple problem-solving approaches. A “math check” by the Collaborative for Student Success explains: “It’s important for kids to learn multiple approaches to solving math problems so that they can choose the approach that works best for them and so that they develop a full understanding of the concepts before they move on to more challenging levels.”

At the same time, students are required to know the basics—like multiplication tables and standard algorithms. Jason Zimba, lead writer of Common Core math standards, explains: “Students are expected to know their sums and products from memory and to be fluent with the standard algorithm for each of the four basic operations (the traditional ‘carry’ method, in the case of addition).”

Put another way by Jordan Ellenberg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin: “The Common Core doesn’t reinvent math education, but it does change its emphasis. The early-grade standards focus on speed, correctness and understanding in arithmetic, because students without that basis get kneecapped later by algebra and calculus.”

The content of Common Core State Standards matches closely with the practices used by top-performing countries across the world. A 2012 study by William Schmidt and Richard Houang, researchers at Michigan State University, found Common Core State Standards are 90 percent aligned to those of high-performing countries. Like those countries’ models, Common Core drills down on fewer topics so students can develop a better mastery of fundamental skills.

While it might be expedient for policymakers to remove high-level math requirements for students, doing so would ultimately put them at a disadvantage. The article notes Bill McCallum, a coauthor of the Common Core math standards, points out that many students need high-level math in college or their career pursuits. Removing high-level requirements, like Algebra, would put these students at disadvantage.

Likewise, math requires students to exercise critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that are applicable beyond the classroom. It makes sense then that all students should be challenged so they can graduate high school prepared to tackle difficult material.