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

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

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?

Georgia requires all students take "Coordinate Algebra or Algebra I or the equivalent, Analytic Geometry or Geometry or the equivalent, Advanced Algebra or Algebra II or the equivalent, and One Additional Unit to be selected from the list of GSE/AP/IB/dual enrollment designated courses."

Researchers at Washington University found higher standards for math and science caused high school students to drop out. "There's been a movement to make education in the United States compare more favorably to education in the rest of the world, and part of that has involved increasing math and science graduation requirements," said researcher Andrew D. Plunk when the study was released two years ago. "There was an expectation that this was going to be good for students, but the evidence from our analyses suggests that many students ended up dropping out when school was made harder for them."

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.

According to a 2015 report by the Mathematical Association of America, "Each year only about 50 percent of students earn a grade of A, B, or C in college algebra."

Get Schooled contributor John Konop has long been concerned about the trend in math education, telling me, "The mission of education should be to have students graduate with marketable job skills or prepared for higher education. Instead, we have created a one-size-fit-all standard that pushes students out and does not even match what the job market needs. The better we connect the two, it will decrease dropout rates, and help the economy."

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.

As Slate writer Dana Goldstein writes:

"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.

Writing a rebuttal to Hacker's position in the Atlantic, journalist A.K. Whitney said: (Whitney frequently writes about math education.)

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.