I agree with Josh all the way down to his last sentence:
>I think the arguments over what specific topics are useful in algebra 1 are >just as useful as the arguments that, say, Stanford has about what books >ought to be read in their freshman CIV courses.
My impression is that the arguments about reading lists for CIV (Cultures, Ideas, and Values, I think -- though the name was chosen to suggest Civilization, too -- anyhow, it's being called something like I-Hum now: "Introduction to Humanities" but also suggesting personal humming) are mostly worthless -- the specific books matter much less than the thoughtfulness with which they are studied.
But the choice of topics in algebra I can matter a lot. To some extent, it is still true that the specific topics are less important than the manner with which they are studied -- I'd rather my students (or my children, for that matter) have a thoughtful, deep understanding of algebraic thinking than a superficial command of lots of computational techniques (still better would be both) -- but unlike CIV, there are *direct* applications of what is learned in beginning algebra in future courses and work.
Or maybe I'm agreeing with Josh -- which just goes to show how little my liberal arts education helped my reading skills.