The Relevance of Algebra and Other Truths

“Mom, what possible relevance will Algebra have in my life?”

This is what my eighth grader asked me recently as he grumbled over his homework. I remember feeling similarly when I was in middle and high school and often asked myself why or how the material I was grousing about was going to help me in the future. My favorite part of my son’s question was that I had heard him recently tell numerous medical doctors that he is interested in a career in medicine.

So, my answer to his question was easy. You need to understand the application of A LOT of math to prepare yourself for the science courses you will need for your pre-med program—plus it is required to graduate high school in New York State. I think the more important point here is that our middle and high school students are unable to connect the dots not only from their current course work (whether it is math, science, language, social studies, or English) to major fields of study in college and beyond, but also to professional pursuits.

Students are curious as to why they need to slug through Algebra, or Latin I, or World History. Teachers, counselors, and parents can help students to make these connections. It is a lot easier to get your child to study and care about a subject if he or she can see why it is important for her or his future aspirations. Well, maybe not easy but at least less hard.

While the thought of medical school is a long way off at my house. My son can understand that to keep a large number of academic doors open to him, he needs to follow the most challenging academic program for him while earning the best grades possible for him (I stress for him, because these are individual programs and goals—each child’s interests, needs, and abilities are different). For most students, this should mean sticking with all five academic solids (math, science, foreign language, social studies, and English) for all four years of high school. Certainly, students can and do drop one or more of these subjects—in fact, most state requirements allow high schools students to graduate with a fraction of academic solids for the four years of high school.

But just because you can drop a math or science class does not mean you should. In fact, many students and parents think it makes sense to drop an academic solid once they have completed their HS graduation requirement to add other electives. This might not be in your student’s long term interest. I cannot stress enough that high school students should strive to take the most challenging courses while balancing the strongest grades they can muster. For some students math comes easy, for others English or Foreign Language.

It is important to remember that your student will learn differently from his or her peers. Colleges of all selectivity levels want to see how your student handles a variety of challenging courses. They are interested in knowing how your student manages in a course that is more challenging—not the course where he or she gets an easy ‘A’. Sticking with the academic solids will showcase your student’s abilities and intellectual prowess.

Meanwhile, I am still working through Algebra and if nothing else, my son is excited to realize that he now knows more math than I can possibly remember!

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