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Of all who embark on higher education, only 58 percent end up with bachelor’s degrees. The main impediment to graduation: freshman math. The City University of New York, where I have taught since 1971, found that 57 percent of its students didn’t pass its mandated algebra course.

Andrew Hacker, Sunday Times Op-Ed, “Is Algebra Necessary?”

Hacker, a professor at Queen’s College in New York, penned an educator’s apologist opinion in the Times over the weekend, throwing up his hands at the state of mathematics education in the US and arguing schools should eliminate algebra from the standard curriculum because algebra is too hard.

Adam Hayes via the NYTimes

Adam Hayes via the NYTimes

The challenge with math education and education broadly is lack of access. Great teachers are too scarce to serve the 64M American students somewhere between kindergarten and college. Instead, pupils learn in underfunded, over-attended classrooms which clearly are not providing the instruction success requires.

Exceptional teachers are force multipliers. But there are too few to serve all our classrooms. What to do? Find a better solution rather than abandon the goal. Broad academic success including math is the engine for economic growth, not an after-school intramural sport.

Hacker’s fatalism, his willingness to forsake the right path for the easy one, is the harbinger of a magical moment, the time when entrepreneurs disrupt.  Startups are enabling the next generation of students to learn from very best teachers for each subject. Companies like 2Tor, CourseEra, Minerva, Khan Academy, Boundless Learning and EdX redefine education. They enable students to access the most effective teachers, to learn from the best materials, and to blossom in supportive education communities at scale.

Technology isn’t a panacea – video instruction may not dramatically increase algebra test scores alone. But providing access to the best teachers is a step (function) in the right direction.

Startups are the best antidote for the maddening, poisonous defeat Hacker asks us to accept. In a few years, these startups will have helped millions of people learn from the very best teachers. And entrepreneurs will have proved the defeatists wrong, again.

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2 thoughts on “When Entrepreneurs Attack

  1. The NYT, after their ongoing criticism of technology in education, finally (in my opinion) did something useful by opening a discussion on the high school math curriculum. They are right, it is inane. They failed to present a better alternative which made the article pretty weak.

    In my opinion, the average high school graduate (and college graduate too) would be much more motivated and equipped for modern life if instead of struggling with the very abstract concepts of quadratic equation, trig, and calculus, they were taught:

    – computer programming
    – statistics and probability
    – basic financial analysis
    – basic math of home electricity, measurement,
    – basics of business accounting
    – indepth word problem skills. ie the ability to analyse real world issues with analytical and quantitative tools

    And, to get real, we should also redo the science curriculum. How can it be that we graduate students unable to make sense of standard warning labels on medicine or understand routine medical advice. Yet they have learned to balance valences and solve multivariate quadratic equations

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