Are we forcing too many students to take high-level math they'll never use?

I talked this weekend to a mother whose son is struggling in algebra II.  Why, she asked, does he have to take it? He wants to be a sports promoter but is being forced to take the same rigorous math as classmates who want to be doctors and engineers, she said.

As a nation, we've raised the bar for math performance for all students. While about half of high school graduates took algebra and geometry 35 years ago, today 88 percent of high school grads have taken geometry and 76 percent have two years of algebra.

The accelerated math curriculum remains a struggle for both high school and college students. Is that struggle worth it when a lot of them may never use the math they're learning?

In their review of  U.S. Census data back to 1990, the Washington University researchers found the U.S. dropout rate rose to a high of 11.4 percent when students were required to take six math and science courses, compared with 8.6 percent for students who needed fewer math and science courses to graduate.

Konop cited a recent Slate Magazine story about political scientist Andrew Hacker, author of  The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions. In his bookHacker argues the rising math requirements imposed on American students have contributed to the high number of students who don't finish high school or college. Hacker suggests a more practical math syllabus that teaches the math most people will actually use in their lives.

"We are really destroying a tremendous amount of talent—people who could be talented in sports writing or being an emergency medical technician, but can’t even get a community college degree,” Hacker told me in an interview. “I regard this math requirement as highly irrational.” He notes that between 2010 and 2012, 38 percent of computer science and math majors were unable to find a job in their field. During that same period, corporations like Microsoft were pushing for more H-1B visas for Indian programmers and more coding classes. Why? Hacker hypothesizes that tech companies want an over-supply of entry-level coders in order to drive wages down.
Math and I have a checkered past. I convinced myself in the sixth grade that I was awful at it because I wasn’t getting easy As anymore, and spent the rest of my school years fearing and failing it. My math phobia kept me out of the sciences and medicine, and pushed me into the humanities. I got through my initial career avoiding it, which was easy: Those in the media are a notoriously math-hating bunch. But seven years ago, I enrolled in a pre-algebra class at a community college, and eventually wound up retaking all of high-school math through calculus. By the last class, I had come to not only appreciate math, but to also—maybe—love it. Most importantly, I realized my childhood fear—that I wasn’t capable of understanding abstract math—was unfounded. And as I went through my community-college courses, I realized something else was a lie. I had actually been using abstract math, like algebra and geometry, all my adult life. So much for the trope that such math was useless outside the classroom; I just couldn’t see past my own bad memories.
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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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