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Giving Students the Critical Reasoning Skills They Need

How long will it take to pay off my credit card? How much medicine do I give my sick child? How do I choose an internet plan that handles all my streaming? 

As simplistic (and maybe random) as these questions seem, the common factor is that their solutions are all rooted in Algebra. These common questions are asked every day by millions of people in Michigan and in order to make the best decisions, they need to use algebraic thinking skills. Lawmakers in Michigan have proposed a bill that makes Algebra an optional course in high school, eliminating the opportunity for many people to gain the skills they need to make simple (but equally important) life decisions like these. The bill proposes using courses such as statistics and financial literacy in place of Algebra 2. 

I am a former engineer who is now a National Board-Certified Teacher, Michigan Educator Voice Fellow, and Teacher Champion for Educators for High Standards.  I have been teaching middle and high school math for the last 14 years, during which people have always responded with disbelief when I make the argument that higher-level thinking skills required in the real world are all based in Algebra. For example, when communicating with others, we need to choose the best way to share information so that it is relevant and understandable to the intended audience; this practice of rearranging material to best fit the situation is akin to transformations, factoring, and sequences, all of which are key algebraic concepts. As students master these concepts in algebra, they develop the thinking skills that are transferrable to many other situations- not just the math classroom, as so many think.

Algebra also develops highly sought-after 21st-century skills like creativity, analysis, and leadership. Rarely does only one solution pathway exist for a problem, and there is always a multitude of ways a student can explain and rationalize their solution. As students learn to reason, analyze situations, identify relationships between objects, and explain their thinking, they are again developing important life skills that are transferrable out of the math classroom.

As a mom of a rising second grader, I know that technology, information, and media literacy are critical to her school experience. Technology is integrated into her education, and as such, she is already figuring out how to sort through information and how to find accurate information in different content areas and through different platforms. She must categorize, connect, and synthesize information, all of which are skills embedded in Algebra through identifying relationships between function families, finding contextually relevant solutions to equations, and representing functions with graphs, equations, and data tables.

Algebraic thinking is a basic skill that everyone should have the opportunity to learn in high school. Until now, students have been required to take Algebra to graduate. If Michigan House Bill 4271 passes, graduates in our state will lack the skills they need in order to be successful in our increasingly more complex world. Over the past decade, Michigan has raised the expectations for our students by adopting more rigorous standards and aligned assessments. We should continue to hold our students to high expectations by maintaining a standard for math requirements and equipping our graduates with coursework that teaches them the skills necessary to succeed after high school. It’s not about whether students can solve absolute value and systems of nonlinear equations as teenagers; it’s about giving them the skills to calculate the 2:00 AM medicine dose to relieve their three-year old’s fever.

Gina Wilson is Math Department Chair and a CORE Advisor at the Early College Alliance in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in Mathematics, a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow, a Collaborative for Student Success Media Fellow, and former finalist for Michigan Teacher of the Year. She is currently completing her doctorate in Education Leadership, holds a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan and has previously worked as an environmental engineer. Follow her at @GinaWilsonNBCT.