How Much Math do we Really Need?

Intriguing article in the New York Times, “Is Algebra Necessary?”

Andrew Hacker argues that requiring all students to study algebra and higher mathematics is unnecessary and causes many students to fail. In this world of STEM focus and U.S. math scores way behind, this is a dangerous thing to say!

I happen to agree. I’m not the only one. In yesterday’s State of Now #140edu conference, Chris Lehmann made the same claim. He asked the audience how many people had done a derivative in the last year. Only 2 or 3 raised their hands. How many people had read something in the paper that involved statistics? Almost eveyone. Yet high school math requirements do not include even basic statistics.

Dan Meyer, a math teacher, thoughtfully makes the same claim in a TEDx talk. Watch it.

Hacker says, ” Mathematics is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status.” Many colleges require three years of math to enter, graduate programs require calculus, even if that subject is never ever needed in grad school.

What does that do to students whose strength might be in the arts? or literature? writing? music? history? Do students who may not excel at mathematics get discouraged? Hacker thinks they do, “Demanding algebra across the board actually skews a student body, not necessarily for the better.”

I see this at my house. My daughter is a visual learner. She’s creative. She’s musical. She is not a linear sequential learner. Math is a huge struggle for her. She spends a hugely disproportional amount of time on math homework. She fails tests. She spends hours before and after school getting help. She gets very discouraged. The non-contextual way math is taught has absolutely no relevance to her. Her math grades will bring her GPA way down – and it’s not for lack of hard work. The way math is taught just doesn’t make sense to her.

Does she need math beyond this point? It took me a long time, but I’d argue no, she doesn’t. I can guarantee she’s not going to be an engineer, a math professor. She won’t need calculus, or even the pre-calculus she’ll have to take in order to graduate. Yet, she won’t get a single lesson about balancing a check book, reading statistics, or other basic consumer math.

I love Hacker’s idea of a “citizen statistics.” This stuff would be really useful – -to everyone.

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