How Andrew Hacker and the New York Times got it wrong

The July 29 New York Times Op-Ed page ran a piece by Andrew Hacker entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?”  In the course of the piece, he makes several arguments all pointing towards a resounding “NO!”  The arguments he makes are, in my opinion, all flawed.  I’ll address one of them here, surrounding the employability of people in math heavy fields.

One argument against Hacker’s work that I haven’t seen is pointing out his misuse of source material.  Hacker cites several reports surrounding the role of employment in the so called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), some of which are misquoted, all of which are quoted out of context.  After looking over the reports, I would propose that even the source material that Hacker uses supports the position that if a person wants to belong to a field with low unemployment and high quality of employment, then algebra is most definitely necessary.

Andrew Hacker cites reports from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (GCEW), but he has fundamentally misread them.

“the [GCEW] forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above”

This is taken from this report.  Based on the tone of the report, the only conclusion that I can draw is that Andrew Hacker read the abstract of the report and nothing else.  The executive summary lays out observations in direct contrast to Hacker’s conclusions:

“The concern for STEM shortages tends to focus on the possibility of an insufficient supply of STEM workers, but the deeper problem is a broader scarcity of workers with basic STEM competencies across the entire economy. Demand for the core competencies is far greater than the 5 percent traditional STEM employment share suggests, and stretches across the entire U.S. job market, touching virtually every industry.

Since 1980, the number of workers with high levels of core STEM competencies has increased by almost 60 percent. Further, in all but two occupational clusters, the rate of growth in demand for these core STEM competencies has increased at far greater rates than the growth in employment.” (emphasis mine)

To translate a bit, 5% of jobs are in STEM fields, but demand for workers in other fields that have STEM skills has grown faster than employment and continues to grow.

He quotes other reports from GCEW and gets both the context and numbers wrong.

“A January 2012 analysis from the Georgetown center found 7.5 percent unemployment for engineering graduates and 8.2 percent among computer scientists.”

He got the engineering number correct, but he makes it sound as if there’s a negative outlook in the report on the whole field and the number he’s reporting is the unemployment number across all graduates.  The report is talking about recent graduates, not employment numbers for the whole field:

“The unemployment rate for recent college graduates in …  Computer Science and Mathematics are 7.8 percent and 6.0 percent, respectively… Similarly, recent graduates in Engineering do relatively well (7.5 percent unemployment)” (emphasis mine)

From the same report, I’d like to highlight numbers that describe not only amount of employment but quality of employment.  On page 8 of the report typical salaries are plotted.  What are the top 2 earning fields for non-graduate-degree, experienced employees?

  1. Engineering ($81,000)
  2. Computers/Mathematics ($76,000)

Let’s be clear here, these fields need algebra.

Correctly interpreting the source material that Hacker cites shows a very different picture of STEM careers and the role of algebra in employment than what he’d have you believe.  If you want to be highly employed; if you want to have high quality employment then algebra is necessary.

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