Acing Algebra

By Hasan Zillur Rahim

The decision to introduce algebra to 8th grade students within three years is a beacon of hope in the otherwise bleak K-12 public education system of California. Numerous studies have identified difficulties with algebra as one of the main reasons why high school and even college students failed to graduate every year. By demanding early mastery in a discipline that Gov. Schwarzenegger called the “key that unlocks the world of science, innovation, engineering and technology,” California has taken a step in the right direction to support the demands of the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.

Teaching at a community college can give one a sense of how unprepared students generally are in algebra when they graduate from high schools. I began teaching the subject as an adjunct faculty in a community college in northern California this spring. The elementary algebra course included the study of real numbers, linear equations, exponents, polynomials, factorization, quadratic equations, and rational expressions. The first week was revealing. Negative numbers, fractions and divisions, particularly those involving decimals, overwhelmed many students. Calculating something like 54 – (-12) baffled about a quarter of the student who subtracted 12 from 54 to produce a result of 42. Almost half the class was clueless about the order of arithmetic operations, and solved problems like 2 + 4(1/2 + 1/3) as 6(1/2 + 1/3) = 5. Something more complicated like 1/2 + 3/4[-2(1/4 + 5/12) + 3/5] threw almost the entire class off.

It took me an ordinate amount of time to cover the basics and shake off the students’ fear of numbers and equations. However, once they sensed the power and beauty of algebra and its relevance, not just to their careers but also to such daily tasks as shopping and driving and lobbying for a cause on campus, they made rapid progress. Convincing them that I would be a patient and sympathetic teacher as long as they made a serious effort at learning algebra also helped.

Frank, floundering in fractions in the beginning, displayed fluency with factorization toward the end. Christina, shaky until spring break, suddenly began solving quadratic equations with ease. Paul, easily the oldest student in the class at 53, exuded confidence that after two attempts, he would pass algebra this time. A college degree that he had to postpone after graduating from high school in the ‘70s now appeared as a distinct possibility.

There was no denying that if the average student had a better grasp of algebra from middle and high schools, I could have made more progress and even delve into some exciting real-world applications before the semester ended.

During spring break, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/mathpanel/index.html) released a 120-page report that stated, “Although our students encounter difficulties with many aspects of mathematics, many observers of educational policy see algebra as a central concern. The sharp fall off in mathematics achievement in the U.S. begins when students reach late middle school, where, for more and more students, algebra course work begins …” Three words summarized the panel’s recommendation: “Focus on algebra.”

Yes, funding, teacher training, school resources and myriad other issues pose thorny problems to the decision by the California State Board of Education. But by testing eighth-graders in algebra within three years and giving them a head-start to flourish in the knowledge-based global economy will more than justify the investments that must be made to the K-12 public education ecosystem. As a nation (to cite only one example), we cannot afford our fifteen-year-olds to rank 25th among 30 developed nations in math literacy and problem-solving, as the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) (http://www.pisa.oecd.org) found.

Besides, lack of qualified teachers may not be as insurmountable a problem as is currently thought. The EnCorps Teacher Initiative

(http://www2.encorpsteachers.org ) launched in June of last year is attracting retiring baby boomers and other concerned Americans. Their expertise in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, statistics, physics, chemistry, biology and computer science, honed in the trenches, is precisely what our students need to make these subjects become real for them in classrooms.

This should particularly appeal to Muslims with expertise in these fields, particularly in algebra. After all, the word algebra comes from the Arabic word “al-jabr” from the title of the book “al-Kitāb al-muḫtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa-l-muqābala” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Compendious_Book_on_Calculation_by_Completion_and_Balancing) by the great Muslim mathematician Al-Khwarizmi (780-850) who invented the field.

What an opportunity it is for us to pay homage to Khwarizmi by teaching algebra in middle and high schools throughout America! With our knowledge and experience, we can do wonders for our students. If we can inspire just one student to excel in math or science, we can turn a life of low expectations into one of high achievement. If we can prevent just one student from dropping out – about a million students drop out of schools every year in America – we may just set off a chain reaction that can significantly reduce this unacceptable statistic. If this is not persuasive enough, consider what Paul, my oldest student, said of his experience: “Everyone gets a second chance in America.” We can be that catalyst for that second chance for someone.

So, enough with conferences and position papers and lectures. Let us try to make a difference in the lives of our school students if we can, with the intention of pleasing Allah, and the rest will take care of itself.