Algebra.

Via Flickr by albastrica mititica

Algebra was responsible for the first F I ever got.

While I was never a straight-A student, I wasn’t a screw-up either. But tell that to Mexican-immigrant parents who dropped out of school after first grade and took pride in seeing their offspring get the education they never had. I’ll never forget that dreadful parent-teacher conference after that seventh grade F, or the silence in our minivan on the way home. There was no congratulatory feast at Shakey’s Pizza that night.

I’ve never passed algebra. In high school pre-algebra, I weaseled my way to a C by teaching my teacher how to play “Angel Baby” on the acoustic guitar. Geometry came next, and I passed with no trouble. In my senior year. my problem with algebra was shared by many other students and posed a threat to the record of my “California Distinguished” high school. So the administrators decided to count Accounting 1 as an algebra equivalent. I passed that with a B+.

When I entered Pasadena City College, in the hope of transferring to a four-year institution, the placement exam put me two classes below the California transfer requirement class of Statistics 50. I wasn’t the only one with this problem; 80 percent of my fellow incoming students also place into below-college-level math, according PCC’s research office.

Four and half years later, I still haven’t passed. OK, let me be honest – I failed algebra seven times. I started to question my character, my brain, my capabilities, and even my values. How was I able to write a cover story for Saveur magazine in 2011 but unable to pass a class that involved mixing numbers with letters?

Ready to break down in desperation, I made an appointment with my academic counselor. He pointed me to an experimental class called “Exploring Topics in Mathematics.” It promised to jumpstart me into Statistics 50—into the next-to-last class I’d need to complete in order to transfer. I immediately enrolled.

The class teacher was Professor Jay Cho, a slender, soft-spoken 41-year-old from Korea who had received his Masters in mathematics from UC Irvine. “You can just call me Cho for short, or, as some of my past students called me, notorious C-H-O,” he told us. Cho taught us how to complete Linear Equation problems by relating it to blood alcohol levels when you drink and drive. He used the almost-daily tardiness of the Goth girl to teach us relative frequency approximation of probability. It was a modern-day version of Stand and Deliver.

Twenty of the 35 of us passed the class. That was a far higher rate than normal for the level of math we were being taught.

But my story doesn’t end there. I still had to get through Statistics 50, also taught by Cho. And how did that go?

I failed. Cho felt I just hadn’t devoted enough time to studying. I wish the explanation were that simple.

According to the current regulations of California, I am ineligible for college, and I shouldn’t even have a high school diploma. The thinking in such policymaking is that 1) despite all the failed attempts, all of us who fail algebra are secretly able to pass it, if we just push ourselves a little harder. And 2) that higher education would be wasted on someone who can’t pass algebra.

But are those assumptions valid? I don’t think an inability to solve quadratic equations should bring me or so many of my classmates to the brink of high-school dropout status.

Now I’ve finally dropped out, and I’m supporting myself through writing. Many students who are jobless and trying to get a college education after 20 years out of school are likewise stymied by math. I would love to learn more about art, philosophy, literature, and history in a college setting. But math requirements will prevent that.

Should they?

Javier Cabral is responsible for TheGlutster.com (formerly Teenage Glutster), a food, booze, music, and general desmadre blog. He is an in-house writer for Sonic Trace KCRW and freelances for Saveur Magazine and Grub Street LA. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

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  • PatRick

    The previous two commenters don't seem to understand what Cabral is saying. The statement that Cabral doesn't support having any standards at all is laughable if it weren't meant with all seriousness. It's at best a misunderstanding of Cabral's statement and at worst a willful twisting of it. Cabral is asking why his seeming inability to pass algebra should bar him from pursuing studies in other fields, unrelated to mathematics. While you, Mazer101, must get a kick out of mocking other people's inabilities, I can't help but think that you entirely miss the point that Cabral is making, namely that he is asking why his lack of aptitude in algebra would make him ineligible to receive ANY type of college degree. It's a better question than you're giving him credit for, and it makes both of you look quite ridiculous to assert that Cabral is either lazy or lacking in values for not being able to pass algebra. As the fact that he is currently self-employed and has indeed found ways of getting outside this issue so clearly demonstrate, he is neither lazy nor without values. Moreover, you address neither of his questions that he asks in this article. You mock the first one and ignore the second one.

  • floridagirl

    I too have been plagued by college algebra, I've failed (or had to drop before I failed) I think 5 times now, my degree is in criminology. It's the last class I need to get my BSAS lol. Well our governor in Florida stated that they are changing some requirements (like math) for certain degrees. I also think it's silly to not allow someone to further their education if they lack ability in one area. I received my Assoicate's Degree, graduating with honors due to my high GPA but once I transferred into a university my many F's in this stupid class have dropped it down and ruined all of my hard work. Atleast here, we have many professors from other countries which makes learning it that much harder. Hang in there, some day when they change the requirements, I'm sure more people will pursue high education. I also excel in writing.

  • Johnny Mills

    Seems like if you understand the concepts, that's literacy. If you can't solve the problems well, don't get a job involving math. Not sure why someone should be punished or have their options further limited if they have other talents…

  • Kristine Hood

    I am NOW a retired Licensed Masters Social Worker, Certified Social Worker and a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers. I have additional certifications in School Social Work, and Medical Social Work (where I spent MOST of my working career). I am also a published author on the subject of Tourette's Syndrome. I had the above problems, with very little parental and academic support from school staff. While in GRADUATE SCHOOL, I took "School Testing". We tested each other and my fellow student quickly and correctly diagnosed me with "Discalcula". A learning disability. I finally understood that hard work CANNOT overcome certain brain processing problems without skilled teaching. The relief was astounding, and with skilled professional support I was able to learn enough Algebra when applied to my subject matter for a required Research and Statistics Class. Please go to the Special Education Department at your university and ask for testing and professional followup. Someone there will UNDERSTAND and NOT BLAME. The world NEEDS your talents. Don't let this stop you. I used my significant RIGHT BRAIN superiority to help thousands of people in my career. You can, too.

  • James

    Javiar's story is not at all unique and I believe it represents a fundamental problem with our educational system as a whole. The last two decades have really put an emphasis in higher math skills in order to produce more STEM college bound graduates. The problem with this approach is that while learning higher math(meaning higher math beyond arithmetic) is that a certain percentage of students have learning disabilities which inhibit the long term retention and understanding of certain math courses such as Algebra and Statistics.

    People with learning disabilities are not at all lazy or stupid, but have a disability which prevents them from doing certain things such as understanding higher applications of math. What our educational system should be doing is to make sure these students do not fall through the cracks and end up as high school or college drop outs. If a person has a documented learning disability and traditional methods of assistance such as providing extra time on tests in a private area does not result in helping the learning disabled student to successfully complete a math class, then it would seem reasonable that students such as Javier should be permitted some sort of waiver for the math requirement.

    Unless the student is majoring in math, engineering, or any science related major, providing such a waiver would make the most sense in order to properly accommodate the learning disabled.

    Otherwise, our educational system is part of the problem and by essentially forcing the learning disabled out of school because they couldn't pass Algebra/Statistics/Calculus, etc is creating the problem of allowing what are otherwise talented and intelligent people to drop out and end up with low paying jobs and student loans that they these students may not ever be able to pay back.

    I knew someone, an older student who like Javiar had the same problem with math. As a undergraduate student in her 50's, she petitioned her school's university to take Algebra outside of her college because she had failed this class 5 times. She ended up paying someone to complete the Algebra class which while cheating, allowed her to transfer the credits to her university and finally receive a degree.

    Students like the person I just described are those who have to resort to unconventional means to combat this problem that our educational system needs to address. My friend, who was Business major went out to become a very successful in her field of accounting, never using the Algebra which haunted her throughout her college career.

    It's time that our colleges, universities, and K-12 system make a fundamental change to education away from the "one size fits all" approach and create a system that is more realistic which would guide those whose strengths are not in math, towards other fields that do not require such high math skills. Not everyone is cut out to be a doctor, scientist, or engineer. Some of us become business people like my friend who can be very successful without having to learn Algebra/Calculus, and Statistics. We need as a society to be more aware of how our schools are disenfranchising the learning disabled in order to improve this societal problem.

    Lastly I will ask this question to anyone who disagrees. If students were required to take a semester of some sort of organized sport such as running or volleyball, would it be fair to not allow someone who is paraplegic an alternative to complete their degree problem? Doing otherwise doesn't make much sense, but that is exactly what our high schools, colleges, and universities are doing to the learning disabled!

    • Guest

      I just failed my algebra class at my Community College and It gives me more stress than I have ever had in my life. I am now going to have someone do it for me online and pay them. I cannot take the psychological problems it gives me anymore. I honestly tried my heart out to understand that subject, and understood it fine, but after each test, I failed them miserably… This is the only class I have ever failed. It is the only class that has ever given me thoughts of depression, and suicide as well. The pain cannot be tolerated any longer, for I will now resort to something that will bring me shame within my heart. : (

  • kjacksonemti

    As a fellow Higher Math Cripple, I definitely feel the author's pain.

    Both my parents were teachers. When a student they felt was other wise intelligent failed at something they considered a simple subject (and to teachers, they're all simple subjects) then that student was just 'undermotivated'. So when I started completely and utterly bombing algebra in 7th grade, they just figured the problem was laziness. I was first encouraged, then threatened, then punished and finally herded into a little homemade cubicle constructed out of two dressers and a desk. Every weeknight I was put in there because I just wasn't "able to concentrate". Of course, making my studying conditions easier for me to 'concentrate' in was basically just educatorese for 'lock the lazy ass in a dungeon until he gets motivated enough to pass'. Not only did I still fail to understand algebra, but I began to hate it like cancer.

    And it only got worse from there.

    So High School rolls around and I'm still unable to understand algebra. My high school math teacher? The most patient human being ever. Seriously. Mrs. Whittington was a saint. because she and my parents were close friends, I spent hours each week being personally tutored by the very woman whose class I took every day. Did it help? Not one single iota. My teacher never wanted to admit that a person couldn't be taught algebra, but at least she didn't assume that my problems with the subject were due to laziness. Unfortunately, my parents and just about everybody else in the education industry (yes, it's an industry) disagreed.

    It always amazed me that the standard response on the part of teachers when confronted by a student who fails abominably at mathematics generally involves words like 'unmotivated' and 'underachiever'. And that's when they're feeling diplomatic. But nobody seems to address the fact that we have millions of children in this country who, despite the best and worst efforts of virtually every adult around them, have never and will never grasp the finer points of algebra or any other advanced form of math. Are they all lazy and stupid? Am I? I'm an EMT-Intermediate with 17 years of field experience and I'm currently taking Paramedic classes. Does anybody here have any idea how complicated the human heart is? I do. I might not be the brightest crayon in the box, but if I can wrap my head around things like 3rd degree blocks, intrinsic firing rates and the effects of norepinephrine and acetylcholine, then I'm probably not stupid. Certainly not so stupid that my intelligence is a fundamental blockade to my understanding of algebra. And I'm pretty sure I didn't intentionally annihilate my chances at a college degree by failing at math out of a desire to spite my parents. I certainly didn't enjoy years of dreading the prospect of any and all forms of math every single day during the school year.

    Something, somewhere in our educational system is badly broken. I have no idea what or where it is, but it's definitely not working properly if a significant portion of students flunk algebra every year. And what makes it worse is the attitude on the part of educators that blaming the students is the answer. The students want to pass more than the teachers want them to, I assure you.

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  • George Hilton

    There are two categories of students in this world. One are those who are very sharp and quick learning in Math and English. In the other category some lazy students are included who always hide themselves from difficult subjects. You may be one of them who is hating algebra. Now you can get help from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCSEQ7f_Vfw video which is serving you to learn any kind of knowledge and inspiring you towards education.

    • kjacksonemti

      I don't mean to be insulting here and I mean this in the least damaging way possible, but you are an asshole.

      People who have problems with higher math aren't lazy any more than dyslexics are. People who have problems with higher math need help, not criticism. And this is precisely the problem with the state of education in America. Had I received some sort of individual help from somebody who understood that my brain just doesn't work like others… had my parents, teachers both, understood that not all students can be shoved into an identical mold and later kicked out like assembly line automatons… had anybody involved with my education recognized that I was working as hard as possible instead of just sitting on my ass out of sloth or spite, I might have ended up in a different place than I am currently: trying to figure out algebra on my own terms so I can pass Paramedic and not be a lethal threat to my patients in the process.

      The problem here is not the lazy student who habitually avoids a difficult subject. The problem here is the lazy educator who is quite happy blaming children for not succeeding in an assembly line educational system.

    • ejmr

      You are an extremely ignorant person. You obviously have never dealt with many people who have learning issues. For me trying to learn math is like banging my head against a brick wall, I'm never going to get through it. I have spent countless hours trying to do math, with no success. I have been tutored by countless people, gone to reviews and study groups with absolutely no success. No matter what I do I cannot get through math. Seriously George, you obviously have no place to say anything. People are not indestructible, some people including myself work so incredibly hard with no success. It is a very discouraging problem, seriously I'm embarrassed for you.

  • James

    George Hilton,

    "There are two categories of students in this world. One are those who are very sharp and quick learning in Math and English. In the other category some lazy students are included who always hide themselves from difficult subjects. "

    You sir live in an imaginary black and white world. Clearly we live in a world where there are many types of students. Yes some are lazy, some are motivated, and some are there because their parents essentially told them that they had to go to school "or else." Yet what you fail to grasp is that there is a type of student that has disabilities that prevent him or her from fully grasping a certain subjects such as what the author of this article describes. Students with math disabilities are the farthest thing from being lazy.

    "You may be one of them who is hating algebra."

    This is not an issue of hating algebra, unfortunately students with learning disabilities with respect to math and language are simply unable to fully grasp many of the concepts required to engage the subject matter. Again, these students with disabilities are not lazy/unmotivated people. Often what they lack in the capacity to fully grasp in math, they excel in other areas of their academic life.

    Don't be so quick to judge and stereotype people and realize that the world is not a black and white, two dimensional place.

  • Carl

    Math teaches you how to think.

    If you are not passing you are not thinking. It is not mixing up numbers and letters. It is understanding, and using, concepts through definitions, axioms and theorems.

    • http://wanderinginla.blogspot.com AimlessInLA

      But here's the thing–Javier did say he passed geometry, though what he means by "passed" isn't entirely clear. For some reason many high school students who struggle with pre-algebra and algebra manage to do fairly well in geometry. It was so in my case, though I don't know why that was. It's been a very long time, but as well as I can recall, the handful of axioms and all the theorems we had to work through all seemed to hang together a lot more cohesively than the content of my first year algebra had–both times I had taken that! I had to work for that 'B' in geometry, but throughout the process I always understood exactly what I was trying to accomplish in a way that hadn't been true for any other kind of math.

      Years after college and grad school, I found an old college algebra text that had belonged to my father. The striking difference in contrast to a first-year high school textbook was that it emphasized proofs a great deal more; it was like geometry, only with partly abstract equations rather than diagrams of lines, circles, and angles. In some ways, it now seemed even easier than geometry, because with algebra you usually don't have to keep switching back and forth between a diagram and an explanation. By no means have I mastered everything in my dad's algebra book, but I have studied enough of it to change my whole perception of the subject. I now enjoy picking at mathematical puzzles and often find I can solve them; ditto for following the proofs of standard area and volume formulas, or even deriving them as I did for the sphere without having ever heard of Cavalieri's Principle. (The chapters on mathematical induction and series in my dad's book were instrumental here.)

      So what, exactly, had been my problem with algebra, and every other type of math I'd had since the third grade? My perception is that the algebra curriculum placed greater emphasis on solving *instances*, or problems, while in geometry it was more about the underlying principles. In hindsight I'm almost certainly wrong in this view and I'm sure my algebra and pre-algebra teachers tried to teach it to me in the same way that geometry is taught. But for whatever reason I just didn't grasp that part of it, and there was no help for me back then, because even I wouldn't have been able to explain why I was having so much trouble with the topic..

    • Elmos

      Believe me, maths has nothing related to thinking. Math is just memorizing laws and solutions. I am doing very bad at math and my GPA was above 3.6 before I failed math and got depressed which made my whole GPA go under 3.0 now. Now I am with a credit for maths of 0 which is okay considering my GPA is going up again near 3 XP . I just need to take maths in a summer course. That is my plan now. The whole rubbish about math is the right way to think won't go by me. I passed statistics with ease! It is maths which I think is illogical and utter stupidity. My major does not involve maths, SO WHY AM I STUDYING IT? I did stat because I might use it in life but maths??? Because some losers who wasted their lives on studying maths realized that it has no other practical use other than making college harder and more difficult. So they said why not ruin their lives?! Yeah I had stupid teachers who refuse to re-explain examples and even make fun of my questions! They are stupid people who think that we care about maths, we don't. I will hopefully get a D and burn my calculator afterwards!

    • Tess

      I totally agree! You're so smart! Good for you! Not every brain is a great at math. Great confidence vote for those who don't get it! VERY condescending! Not a good comment, get off the blog. I can write anything, I can tell you history, I can challenge my co-workers, and tell the IT dept. what the problem is. However, I don't get algebra… so take your BIG self, and your BIG smarts and FO! I think more than you do on a daily basis, Mr. Thinking! Now go throw a fit to your mommy and daddy, for not buying you that X-box game this week, and enjoy your basement accommodations!

    • me.

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  • Rosemary

    There are many reasons why a person may not be able to understand mathematical concepts. While I do not have dyscalculia I do have the inability to process algebraic formulas. After taking algebra 3 times with 3 different teachers, in-person tutors and paying for online tutors I was about ready to quit college and give up. Instead I went to see a neuropsychologist and had specific testing done to find out why I could pass every other class but that one. Turns out a brain injury from when I was younger caused permanent damage to the area of my brain that processes spacial memory. No one will every be able to teach it to me and no amount of applying myself will help. With the permission from the head of the psychology department I was able to get into statistics with out taking algebra and the college district is accepting that class as my math credit to complete my degrees in sociology and psychology. Its very frustrating to keep taking the same class with no results! Not only was it a waist of time for me but an added expense as well. Just because someone cannot complete algebra formulas does not mean that they do not understand math and it certainly should never hold someone back from continued education.

  • Jay

    If the student was lazy, he would not be able to do well in any of the other classes. Me personally, I did well in all of my college courses except for my advanced Algebra class. I passed Algebra 2 in high school, but when I tested for placement in CSU college, I was placed in a remedial based math class. I passed one part and failed the second one which is the last class before college level. In my case, I did well throughout the whole semester until the final exam and went from a 83% TO A 65%. It has nothing to do with a student being lazy or not putting in enough effort. Some students just don't have the same learning abilities in Math as they do in others.

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  • Ruben

    It seems impossible but maybe so. If you are really good and confident at the subject you are it might be that your just bad at math. The mind is a curious thing and works so many ways. See your just really not a math person. All the subjects you just posted proves it. Their is always that one subject someone is really not good at. But their are many jobs for you to get other than your looking for. For example like a Author or a Geologist or maybe a famous Speech Political writer. The world is your oyster and trust me there are many jobs that do not need math.

    • Jane

      Ruben, you said that "there are many jobs that do not need math". That is true BUT…
      the school system REQUIRES all sorts of math to get any advanced degrees. The school system REQUIRES high school algebra 1 and 2 and trigonometry, even if you plan to major in English in college!

      I have interviewed two dozen professional scientists and engineers who were gainfully employed in the field of their studies, and only one of them admitted that he used all the math he was required to study to earn his degree. The others used charts, graphs, computer programs, calculators, and slide rules to figure out exact numbers when needed.

      The requirement for math is a hoax! It is a way to keep us in school longer and a way for the schools and tutors to make more money. You might as well require everyone to design, build and maintain their own car and engine before they are allowed to drive one.

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  • mims23

    Unfortunately, not only might a student have dyscalculia, but it could well be an inherited trait. In my case, my father, I, & my son have all been stymied by our shared inability to learn algebra. My father (born in 1911) dropped out of school after 8th grade, unable to stand the humiliation of devolving from a child who'd skipped 2nd grade to one who couldn't apparently function at normal levels, due to algebra failure. He ultimately retired from a management position in those simpler times. I (born in 1946), struggled through the required College Algebra to a then-acceptable grade of D, graduating cum laude with a BA in English. I became a teacher & later held professional positions in state government. I am a member of MENSA, scored in the 92nd percentile on the verbal part of the GRE, & am quite capable in non-mathematical fields. My son (born in 1985) has a slew of learning disabilities but through diligent effort forged his way past all of them except dyscalculia. With today's higher math requirements, he was never able to get beyond remedial college algebra classes, earning a terminal AA degree in Network Administration (this major accepted business math as the required math class.) Actress-model Brooke Shields (born in 1965) got mucho publicity in the '80's when she graduated from Princeton without being required to take any college math at all. I believe that in the UK & many other European countries, college students focus on their majors & do not have to take core curricula unrelated to their main field of study – why does the US insist that all comers must be math -proficient or be forever barred from four year, liberal arts degrees?

    • debi

      Great statements. I can do basic math easily in most cases.. but not without effort. basic algebra also .. But once i get into difficult equations and higher stats.. Im a goner!!! Im a musical genius and writer. I also have a high ability for reason…philosophy… But I think the part of my brain with numbers takes extreme effort to computate results. Im in college at age 50 and am in a stats class.. Its difficult and killing me….

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  • neal

    It is possible to get a degree without Algebra by taking Liberal Arts Math. If the school you are in doesn't offer it, find a different one. If worst come to worst, get a non-accredited BA and then transfer into an accredited MA that doesn't require math. I personally know several people who have gone this route. There is a way around the math.

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  • tita

    me 2 my first c d and f was in algebra 1 hon but im in middle school so i still have a chance i guess

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  • Penelope

    Javier, you may not be able to get into a public university in California, but you should look at private options as private colleges can be more flexible in terms of entrance requirements and general education requirements. Before you instantly think that this would be too expensive, most colleges offer generous financial aid packages. Applicants who are first-generation Latino college students are in fact heavily recruited by private colleges since they add to campus diversity. You could also look into being tested for a learning disability as some other commenters have described. If you are diagnosed with a learning disability you fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act and universities must legally accommodate your documented disability.

  • It's me!

    I have a similar problem. I am a college sophomore and I tested into the Intermediate Algebra class which is only a prerequisite for college level algebra. I have taken that very course twice and missed the required score by just a few points each time. I am an English major and I'm finishing my German minor and I cannot pass math no matter how much time I focus on it. I've studied formulas, done practice exams, and asked my peers for help and nothing helps me to pass the tests.
    Apparently, I'm smart enough in my German and English courses to be a whole semester ahead of other students my age, but I can't get the basic math credit. I can't do basic math in my head without flipping it all around. I don't retain formulas long enough to match them to test problems. Am I stupid? No, I'm not stupid. I can write all kinds of essays and I can do it in two languages. I've explored all kinds of things in my field of study, but I can't get a math credit to graduate college. What's sad is that a lot of people seem to think that people like me shouldn't be in college at all because we aren't "smart" enough for it.

  • Nowhere, Idaho

    I feel your pain, man.
    After more than 20 years of being an excellent bookkeeper, I 'attempted' to get a BA in Business. I failed, or dropped to avoid failing, College Algebra more than five times (I stopped keeping track).
    My doctor actually suggested I talk to the school's disability services people about testing for dyscalculia. They provided no testing for it, and looked at me like I was a lunatic.
    Honestly, I think they are trained, at least at this college, to refuse medical exemptions whenever possible as it would reduce the amount of money they would make on tuition and books!

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  • Ebony wolf

    Got a A+ in pre algebra but algebra is illogical
    “It’s logical” they say…bull a negative with a even
    Exponent is positive odd is negative so it goes from
    + to – every time. I hate the class and I was laughing
    My tail off because the teacher sounded and looked
    Like a stereotypical math teacher you would see in a movie…
    That ***** gave us homework on the first day…
    She gave us a worksheet that covers 2 days the day
    After the big EOC standard test…now that is not right!

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  • Algebra Sucks 101

    Algebra seems to do more harm than good for most people when they get to algebra. Algebra makes no sense at all, and you don’t get to ask when, what, and why questions.

    I figured out a way to do an algebra problem another way and got the same answer as my instructor, and do you know what grade I got for getting the answer correct? A big fat “F” lowering my GPA. Is math/algebra another religion? A follow, don’t question institutional society of know-it-none pompous jerks? Short story long, this shit ruined my life and set in depressions that still effect me to this day. I barely use addition and subtraction in my day to day life, yet people keep lying to us saying algebra is everywhere. Elephantshit!! We are not all ment to be MATH masters, or Doctors.

    May be I had the wrong teachers….

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  • T. Phillips

    I am currently trying to get by Bachelor's degree in Business Administration. I graduated from my associate's program with honors. I have just been inducted into the National Honor Society and have upheld a 4.0 through my Bachelor's program……up until now, anyway. I still need to pass College Algebra and Statistics…….which, of course, I have put off as long as I could! I don't think of myself as stupid just because my brain doesn't process Algebra; I seem to excel at all other subjects. My Algebra teacher can't spell, but she can graph lines like a champ! I find it ridiculous that you would get cheated out of a college education just because you can't do Algebra. I think California seriously needs to reconsider their regulations! Can you take classes online from another state? Best of luck to you! Don't give up!

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  • Traci

    I feel all this pain I have been out of school and want to go back…I was only required in High School to have two maths So I went with math I and 2 after failing algebra ,. Now trying to go back to school after a long time..I am lost…and can find zero help. I really need to start over like all the way back to fractions…It is sad..because I think schools should be about the job….training you exactly all you will do…funny In the career I want you program the computer to do the doses ….never will there be a time you have to do it in a math problem…just code it in and the computer does it…..and if the computer is down you are not doing it anyway…So yea People would be so much better at their jobs if they could train In their jobs. not crazy math problems you never use or see again.

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  • Algebra Sucks 101

    We don’t start out in this world hating anything, so if you hate mathmatics you may have been scarred by your inability to learn it fast enough. But look at it in this manner. Would you be held back in your education goals if you couldn’t run a mile, paint a Mins Lisa? Someone needs to check if anyone in their field can do a simple algebra problem. Like say a dentist, doctor, or attorney. I can guarantee they will have issues with it because their current career doesn’t demand they need to use it on a day-to-day basis. We need better teachers or something.

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  • Derrick Stevens

    I am up a 2:20am thinking about the fact that I dropped out because I failed algebra three times. It was depressing and frustrating. I studied on vacation, met with friends and tutors etc… But when exam time came around I’d bomb every time. Now here I am 49 without my degree working and being passed over because I have no degree, which I attribute to algebra 100%…its a tough thing, unfortunately.

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  • Margie

    Algebra, solving for X, inequalities, simplifying…..is of the devil and drives some people to the brink of insanity. I know, I am there. I have completed every class required for my Bachelor's Degree, and I am walking away at about $50,000. in student loans, and NO DEGREE!! My mind will NOT learn it nor remember it long enough to pass a test. It is confusing…one problem, you subtract or add, the next one, you divide…and they look the same!! Additive inverse, and crap like that…..For the rest of my life, I will make monthly payments to the dept of education to pay off my loans, and will remember each and every due date of just how stupid my brain is…..and what a failure I am…..

  • Guest

    Algebra certainly does make perfect sense – but that doesn't mean everybody's brain is capable of reasoning with that particular type of sense. What wouldn't make sense however, are certain academic degree programs possibly requiring algebra coursework that doesn't even apply to the professional field/trade of the degree; or employers in such professional fields/trades possibly requiring academic degrees that mandate some superfluous and irrelevant training in math. IF either of these scenarios are currently happening, then this certainly does need to change.

    By the way, when applying for jobs or making professional network contacts, you might wish to be careful about saying so many of the things in the prior posts here – like that you CAN'T do math, that your mind will NOT learn it, that you SIMPLY CANNOT do it, etc. That kind of language (even if correct) is nearly always interpreted and considered as very negative, and defeatist. Such attitudes will usually and appropriately turn off employers and professional contacts immediately (unless the field in question is full of overly-sympathetic and resentful math haters).

    Also, try to remember that even if you weren't a lazy or inattentive student, there ARE at least as many failing math students out there who genuinely are lazy and/or inattentive. The problem for the educator is being able to distinguish the difference, which as you can imagine, is much more difficult than just hearing all the usual and endless excuses. It is extremely unfortunate if many mentally-disabled students are being inadvertently included with the lazy ones, just because they present and look exactly identical to each other.

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  • richard

    Javier seems to have found a way to make a living doing something which he enjoys and thinks valuable. What does it matter whether he does or doesn't ever get a college degree?

    I'd like to win a Fields Medal. It would be wonderful formy self-esteem. Likewise I think it'd be wonderful if I were to be a pro surfer. Unfortunately, in both instances I lack the requisite skill.

    I am not particularly convinced that having a college degree signifies much anymore. In many instances it never did. What is clear, though, and this essay clearly expresses this even if only implicitly, is obtaining a college degree is now viewed as an entitlement.

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  • Erin Manthey

    Ok, my thoughts: 1) Most colleges have some sort of math substitute to College Algebra like Math for Liberal Arts or a Logic course housed in the philosophy department, so the idea of algebra alone standing in the way of a college degree is a bit far fetched. Though I'm not fully aware of if the requirements in Cali are different. 2) I'm probably a little harsh here in saying this, but shouldn't a four-year degree stand for some level of knowledge of breadth of subjects, so if you can't at least pass a somewhat mathematically geared course – I'm not convinced that you are deserving. On the contrast, no one would make a similar claim about English Comp, even though several learning disabilities affect people on reading and writing directly. 3) I'm aware that the way in which math is taught is in need of improvement across the board and unfortunately people coming from the most disadvantaged groups often get the worst of it. Those disadvantages often starting very young and permeating systemically 4) I'm all for both the availability of quality jobs that don't require 4-yrs (of which some exist already) and people being empowered to study the humanities outside of the college setting. Certainly, that's where most of my knowledge obtaining on those subjects has occurred.

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    If you are really good and confident at the subject you are it might be that your just bad at math. The mind is a curious thing and works so many ways. See your just really not a math person. All the subjects you just posted proves it. Their is always that one subject someone is really not good at. EDUCATIONBOARDRESULTS

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  • Adam

    I dont like it when people say “Youre a math person and I dont believe you!” Good for you. You have firmly established that we are different and just because you do it, means I automatically grow the power to do so. I spent 6 years in Pre Algebra, 2 years in Algebra 1 and 1 Semester in Geometry. Hated it all, barely passed or Failed miserably. So I can play 5 musical instruments very well. So can you! WRONG! Comparing apples and oranges. I didnt get to go to college because of a barrier with Science and Math. Tired of academia maniacs pushing incoherently difficult subjects on young kids.

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  • TF

    I am almost 40 years old I graduated high school in 1993, it took me 9th, 10th and a summer, of going to summer school to finally pass 9th grade Math with a 80. I couldn’t take another year of it, and so my guidance counselor told me since I had a numerous amount of music and art credits, they were going to let me graduate, but I was not going to obtain the State of NY regents diploma, Skip to a million college classes later, I still can not get through Math. Like I said I am almost 40, because of this, I can not get a job that pays any money, I am basically doomed. I live at home with my 64 years old parents and 9 year old daughter. I can do clerical work or work retail , fast food but to make it big you even need a college degree these days to be a Administrative Assistant (aka) a friggin secretary, which all our moms where taught to be in high school back in the 50′s and 60′s. I feel defeated… Well thanks for the ability to vent.

  • Yadda Yadda Yadda

    Algebra has almost nothing to do with the vast majority of jobs in the world today. The fact that the author got a B+ in accounting, which really has far more to do with many jobs in America than algebra will ever have, shows that the author knows REAL math that have REAL applications in life, and not some meaningless quadratic equations which you’ll never use again outside of the classroom.

    I also got screwed by the placement test from PCC, and even on my English, which is laughable since I’m also a writer. I spent years going through meaningless English classes where I barely put forth any effort at all to succeed whereas so many other students were struggling. And my algebra classes? I got placed at Math 125, but my first math teacher was horrible, professor Kasfy, then my second was also horrible and treated her classes like we were in elementary, but I passed with a C. Then Math 131 came, and my next math teacher was unbelievably horrible, to where my fellow students were teaching HIM how to solve problems, because he was so old and sometimes hours late to class, as well as deaf and should have been fired, but he held tenure so he was still teaching. I and so many others were failed by him, but I think he doesn’t teach anymore.

    Then my next Math 131 teacher was the second math teacher for Math 125, and again she was horrible, and I had something like a 68% or 69% and I failed. I did all the homework and took excellent notes, but NOPE, still failed. These assholish math professors had no mercy on a LIBERAL ARTS major like myself. Then a new revolutionary course came out, which was Math 150, like a precursor to Math 15. I took Math 150 and it was by far the most refreshing math class I’ve ever taken, and most of what was taught had REAL LIFE APPLICATIONS, things that I would USE in my life after college. Needless to say, since it had real relevance to my success outside the classroom, I was able to learn it much more easily, and I passed with an 88%, because they had some home buying project that I missed the deadline for, believing I could turn it in a day late for less credit and still get an A.

    Then Math 15 came around and I had professor Faccuseh, and what do you know, she was beyond horrible. The way she taught, even some of the math we did, she was teaching us anthropology and retarded Punnett squares, and how they supposedly had something to do with math?! I dropped that class early, sensing a class-wide failure, which inevitably happened.

    I took Math 15 again with my first ever math professor, professor Kasfy, except this time, he had learned much from his previous teaching mistakes, and had become a much better math professor. I’ll be honest, at that point I had been doing so much math for so many years as a liberal arts major, when barely any of it had anything to do with my career goal as a history/english teacher myself, that although I was enthusiastic about getting an A, I was just so depressed and dealing with all manner of personal problems that I would be grateful with just a C.

    I didn’t do any homework for two whole chapters, and then a couple more assignments missed from the third chapter, but as usual, I took excellent notes. I got two D’s on my first two tests, but I learned from the professor that as long as one did the homework, you could still pass with D’s on your tests. “Fuck”, I thought. So I decided to get A’s on my tests so that I wouldn’t get screwed on the homework. The third test came around, which was the longest and typically hardest, and I got a 92%. Then the fourth test came, and with making some excellent study notes, I got an 80%, but that fourth test seemed like the hardest of the class. Then the fifth test came and I thought I got an A, but I got an 84% instead.

    Still, through my calculations, I realized I only needed to get a solid 60% on my final to pass the class, and though I had wishful thinking of a B and regrets of not getting an A, I still focused and studied to at least get a D. I studied for 2 and a half hours. I got a 94% on my final. Excellent study notes, and studying all that I didn’t yet fully master from my previous test corrections.

    I got a B in the class. Ironically if I had done the homework for the first two chapters, I would have gotten higher scores on my two first math tests and would’ve gotten an A in the class. But severe depression hampers my ability to do well in certain subjects, and I’ve been suicidal for years. It’s hard enough to find the will to succeed in college math classes which are my worst subject, when I struggle just to find the will to live.

    Still, I greatly despise America’s utterly brain-dead emphasis on math, math, math! Without literacy, knowledge of history, appreciation of arts and culture and music, or understanding of philosophy and biology, what is math? Emptiness, that’s what it is. A nation full of empty-headed idiots whose only talent is to solve academic math problems. What brain-dead society would encourage such a future? Funnily enough, there are companies that seem to be choosy about who they hire in fields where math and science majors tend to turn to after getting their degrees, and they prefer the guy with a bachelor’s in HISTORY and a master’s in business or accounting, rather than the straight math major. I hope all straight math majors find themselves jobless and unemployed in the future, save only as professors, trapped in the fake world of academia.

    As for myself, I have always had a great talent when it comes to understanding and exploiting all things financial, and I’ve been making accurate stock predictions for going on 15 years now. I think I’ll get a teaching job and then go straight into the financial world, and it’s irrelevant that I don’t have a business or accounting degree, because real world experience trumps the fake academic world every time.

  • Alex

    Its quite possible you have a learning disability of some sort. Which is not your fault and if so I’m sorry you’ve had these issues.

    If not however, anyone can learn algebra. It really isn’t very hard if you understand basic arithmetic and certain definitions (what a monomial is, coefficient etc) because the rules sre the same except with letters.

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      Look up Dyscalculia.

  • Billoriley9191

    It will be a damn shame if I never get a degree and get saddled with all this debt over college Algebra. I don’t even care about doing well anymore. I just want to pass it and never look back. It is the only math requirement I need and for the life of me I can only think of maybe 3 jobs (I don’t even want) that demand you know how to deal with 10X^2-9x=1

    It’s kind of a shame when you think about it. I had a foreign tutor who was appalled at how my math book explained how to do seemingly simple topics. She said that we were making it way harder than it needed to be.

    It’s whatever though. Gunning for a D this semester. If not, I am taking the class at a CC and paying someone to do all my work/tests. I don’t need to know this stuff. hardly anyone does and it is just a hurdle for the sake of preventing people from graduating.

    It’s a messed up system we have here in the U.S. “You want to be a writer? Better learn how to do Algebra cause we all know your work won’t sell if you can’t find the midpoint of a parabola.”

  • Trey

    This depresses me because I need one math class (the school claims it is not algebra extensive, yeah right) to move on and I cannot pass it. It took me about 8 semesters to pass Elementary algebra. What is worse, I racked up a ton of debt that i need to pay off in order to get back into college, which I really want to do

  • TexasOiler

    I’m in a similar situation myself, I’m in massive college debt and haven’t even scratched the surface with remedial algebra classes, let alone college algebra. I’ve attempted to take the remedials twice and withdrew from both. I have a 3.7 gpa but everytime they suggest I take an algebra class, I freeze with fear and terror!

  • John Rudolph

    This is ME in a nutshell. Successful computer tech, ALL the classes DONE for my degree except for…..MATH! I am a published author and a part time musician too! Screw math!!!!!

  • Laura Churchill

    I think all of you who struggle with math should look up Dyscalculia. I’m a long time high school dropout because I can’t use math above a fourth grade level. Now I’m 35, sick of dead end jobs, and I’m going to apply to srs vocational retraining so I can be tested for the learning disability. Cross fingers. I just might get a ged and be able to get a real job.

  • Lisa P.

    Thank you Javier for this article. I am 50 years old and only recently diagnosed with ADD. After failing algebra following my third try, I was appalled that no matter how well I did in my other classes, it didn’t matter. All the math up to algebra was fine for me, and then I felt as if it were a completely different language. I ended up leaving school and getting my GED. This is back in 1983. Any thoughts I’ve had of going to any college, even just for an Associates has always ended when I see the Algebra requirement. I too am good with language, love history and art, but I just need to find my own way. Best of everything for you. Lisa

  • http://tiltontec.com/ Kenneth Tilton

    I have to say, this thread is a bit heart-breaking. I had heard of this — folks getting blown out of college because they cannot get past Algebra — and I believed it but to read story after story like this makes it painfully real. (My experience was in middle school and high school math.)

    I understand there is a growing movement to abolish the Algebra requirement for majors that do not really demand it, but that may come too late.

    If it helps, I am about to bring a free “new” Algebra app to the web. Quotes on the “new” because I offered something similar years ago. It really helped struggling students, but the on-line market wasn’t quite there then and I had other projects to work on.

    It has been re-written from scratch and includes a ton of new features but the core idea is the same: it simulates having a private tutor at your side while you do Algebra. You get help with and automatic checking of each step, not just the answer. And there is unlimited practice and self-testing arranged like video game missions so you can practice enough until you internalize Algebra.

    It is in pretty good shape already, and I would be happy to help folks on this thread figure out how to use it and get going on Algebra. I could prolly handle friends of friends, too, then you can help each other. (It has a built-in forum where messages can be exchanged.)

    Final note: right note it just covers about two-thirds of HS Algebra I, but what we have seen is that once kids get over the initial hurdle a light goes on and Algebra gets easier. And I plan to do the rest of Algebra I over the next few months anyway.

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  • Justin Stark

    What if I told you there’s a four year school out there that doesn’t require Math?

  • Schindler

    Couldn’t identify with or agree with his article more. In high school, I passed the second semester of geometry with a C, and my mom picked me up early from school and took me out for pizza when she got the report card. (pathetic, this reaction from just a C, but up until then, I had passed every math class with a D. I might also add that the only reason I passed was because my teacher offered extra credit to people who stayed after school for tutoring.) My senior year they plopped me in a computer business math and I finished the class A FEW DAYS before I graduated. It was stressful, to say the least.

    Now in college, it took me two years to even GET INTO the statistics class I’m taking now. I failed basic math twice, then finally took a pass/no pass basic math as my last resort. I have nearly every class I need for a bachelors degree, but I can’t pass this math class. I’ve been studying literally every day and going to tutoring, but every time I take a test I fail it. Math is an unbelievable source of stress in my life. I’m a cultural anthropology major, I do not need this much math. I know I do not lack motivation, and I know I am not stupid. I can churn out a seven page essay in a couple of hours, I can draw from life better than most art majors I know, I can read a lengthy novel in a day, I can give you a perfect summary of everything we learned in tenth grade history, I can pass any other class you throw at me without studying or even cracking open the text book, but MATH is another story. I’m not even sure I’m going to be able to graduate because of this one stupid class.

    It isn’t right to say someone should be barred from higher education because of their disability with math. Before colleges required higher maths to graduate, we did perfectly fine. Many scholars and people holding higher ranking positions today did not take these math classes that are forced upon modern college students. Does this mean we shouldn’t trust these people with their positions anymore? If people who can’t perform college level algebra are “unworthy of holding college degrees” then we should test anyone who graduated without taking said math classes. They are absolute frauds– people who can’t pass math classes thinking they can perform a job that has nothing to do with math!! The gall of these people.

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  • crisbo

    Javier, thank you for sharing your experience. I too, had the same problem you did. I am anglo saxon, but for what it’s worth I placed below the the examination for the New Jersey Math college Math Test. It took me 5 times to “exit” Algebra. That was many hard hours, of work, toil, and sweat at the college tutoring building. I hope that you don’t let this deter you from other things. Unfortunately many major corporations use standardized tests and if you want to pass through certain licenses, (Teacher Praxis) tests all of these contain advanced or “college algebra”. It is very sad, because I don’t think having to factor out polynomials should have anything to do with teaching Early Childhood Education. To this day, if someone mentions an advanced Math class to me, I cringe in terror. On the fifth, time, I simply had a enough background knowledge to pass the test. Sadly enough, I had the similar experience of trying to find a solidly, thorough teacher to explain math to me. It just goes to show there are many math and science teachers that can perform math equations and do experiments, but few have the expert content knowledge to teach important advanced level skills. Ty for sharing, good luck!

  • http://helponlineclass.com/ Latashia Blackburn

    It is not just your story i think it is the same story of other students just because they Hate this course just because it is course of concepts and the basics should be clear about this subject mostly students did not have knowledge about this.

  • Jeffrey

    Don't give up Nick, think out of the box. Go to a college that does not have as much of a higher math requirement, specifically out of state. (example- I live in Massachusetts where the math standards are difficult but went to a community college, where they have extra support for math, where tutoring is available and cheaper) I also have an LD, however, I went to a community college and passed Accounting 101, 102, which had 4 credit labs with a B and an A, and were not easy because of the courses were transfer classes to a university.

    I also barely passed with a C a Business Financial Math Class that had stats, algebra, and financial functions in it. In Massachusetts there are more requirements for math that the 11 credits that I passed. Therefore, I transferred to a college that had a business program that did not require as much math that this. Nick, I would try to go to a local Community College and try to pass Algebra, with some private tutoring which is very cheap. Good Luck.

  • Amber

    To those of you who "get" Algebra- congratulations! While I have excelled in every other class, college Algebra is getting the best of me. It's not for lack of trying… countless hours and dollars spent on self-help books and private tutors- to no avail. More than anything, I WANT to be able to understand what I'm doing, but understanding escapes me. If Algebra is such a basic, elementary subject to master, then perhaps you would be so kind as to invest your time and seemingly superior mind to help someone like myself. No? I didn't think so. Those of you who have never struggled to grasp Algebraic concepts have most likely never known the feelings of hopelessness and extreme frustration that make up the personal hell I'm living in right now. You may be a mathematical genius, but THAT is one thing you will never understand. Based on your condescending tone, you must be a fine piece of work…

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  • Jimmy

    Bucks County Community College in PA, NYU (Gallatin) in NY, Harvard Extension School, University Of Ottawa KS are ALL undergraduate degree programmes in the US that DO NOT REQUIRE MATH for undergraduate degree conferral, and all except NYU have online degree completion options. Info is current as of February 2014.

  • Dina

    It's a good thing for you that your high school and college didn't put the same requirements for creative writing as they do for algebra, or you'd be considered one of those you claim "doesn't have any standards at all" because of your "subpar" abilities in that area. My son is a genius at creative writing and has been since he was 5 years old. He would write full scripts and scenarios, but can't grasp algebra. He has always been considered a gifted child. Apparently his brain is more advanced in one area than another, as is yours. But for some reason whoever created the high school and college standards that only appreciate Algebraic abilities, didn't have the intelligence to realize that not all professions require Algebraic knowledge, and not all geniuses have that knowledge as well. It doesn't mean they are lazy or disabled. It just means that they are more talented in one area than another. Just like most people are more physically adept in one area than others.

  • Jane

    Dear Mazer101:

    We hope that someday you will be up against a situation in which your continued survival depends on your ability to develop a skill which you are completely unable to grasp, because that is the situation which Mr. Cabral describes.
    It is fine that mathematics and calculus and differential equations and all the rest are required for majors in science and engineering programs' It is not fine when they are required to even get into college in the first place, especially for liberal arts and humanities which are not based on mathematics. It is very bad when today college degrees are required for jobs that many of us could have done straight out of junior high.
    It used to be that the few people who got through the eight grades in the little one room school house took a couple of years at a teacher's college and turned around and taught the same little one room school house themselves. Today you are required to have a degree to push a broom. Today you are required to have a degree in Early Childhood Education to babysit infants and toddlers!

    Just as people's bodies are greatly varied in size, shape, and strengths, so too are our minds. Just because you could do algebra when you were six years old does not automatically exclude everyone else of a more normal intelligence from the right to earning a relevant degree and earning a living.

    Have you ever tried to live on a minimum wage job? It is not possible without some real material assistance. 85% of the people who receive food stamps and other aid are employed.
    Rather than belittling someone who could not learn arithmetic or math or algebra, how about finding effective ways to help them learn, or better yet, how about making our requirements for non science and non engineering degrees more realistic and humane?
    I bet you do not do your own plumbing repairs. I bet you don't tune up your own car. I bet you do not clean your own heating ducts and chimneys each year. You let professionals with the proper equipment do those jobs. Why should they be required to pass algebra? Why should they be required to have a BA in anything at all?

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