Today I listened to NPR's Scott Simon and Keith Devlin of Stanford University, answer the question: Why Do We Need to Learn Algebra? (NPR Weekend Edition Saturday~February 28, 2009). Devlin described how spreadsheets have become essential to managing everything from your finances to your fantasy football team. And of course, spreadsheet are basically collections of algebraic formulas. You can follow this link to the NPR story, comments and audio file. Teachers might use Devlin's comments as a springboard for getting students to think and discuss the application of algebraic thinking in their lives.
This is essential, since algebra is emerging as an academic gate keeper. I'm not a math teacher, but I suspect it stems in part from the fact that many students lack basic computation skills. But more importantly, students have to be able to transition from concrete lower order thinking skills (arithmetic) to higher-level and more abstract thinking (algebra and beyond).
As Doug Reeves has noted, "The single highest failure rate in high school is Algebra I. After pregnancy, it’s the leading indicator of high school dropout. The leading indicator of success in Algebra I is English 8. The Algebra 1 test is a reading test with numbers.” District Administrator, April ‘05
If Reeves is correct, then this is as much a literacy problem as a math problem. Teachers of all content areas can pitch in to support the higher order skills (analysis, evaluation and creating) that will help students with more advance mathematical thinking.