This is the first in a series of pieces about math education designed to provoke a discussion. As tutors, we have formed an opinion about the thrust of the dominant paradigm of mathematics education in local schools. Time and time again we witness students whose capacity to “perform” in mathematics exceeds their actual learning. They get the “right grade in the right class,” but they often miss out on deep understanding because they are so frenetically trying to get admitted to the “best college possible.” We think that needs to change.
We’ve written before about students enrolling in advanced math classes at earlier and earlier ages, something we’ve termed “math pushdown,” so when we read a recent opinion piece in the Sunday Review of the New York Times, entitled “The Wrong Way To Teach Math,” by Andrew Hacker, it got us thinking again. The piece raises some very interesting points about the dominant arc of mathematics education for high school students. It advocates for a track of math that would differ from the existing “gold standard” of Algebra 1 and 2, Geometry, Precalculus and Calculus. Furthermore, it asserts that a significant portion of the high school population is done a disservice (and actually ends up being less practically mathematically literate) by attempting to follow this path. With some caveats, we tend to agree.
We’ve long believed that for those students that have no intention of pursuing a career in the sciences, engineering, or any other path where calculus is a practical necessity, there is no need for it. Their needs, i.e. becoming well-rounded critical thinkers ready for the next step in their educations and equipped to assess the validity of “factual” claims, would be far better served by capping their high school mathematics careers with some sort of course in statistics. One only needs to watch or read a few minutes of the news during this year’s Presidential campaign season, where “facts” and data are treated as a fungible currency in support of a narrative, to grasp this necessity.
Yet often, precisely the students we reference above enroll in a high school Calculus class on the advice of family and well-meaning counselors because “having it on my transcript will make me a better college applicant.” We have to ask, “Why?” If the aforementioned is true, i.e. that having Calculus on a high school transcript really does help a student with college admissions, how did it become the case that a subject that most will never use after high school became a key qualification for favorable admissions decisions?
We’ve yet to see a study that proves that having taken Calculus in high school means that the success that one will have as an English major, for example, is enhanced and that English majors so equipped are better critical thinkers. In fact, if you have read our previous thoughts on math education, you know that our belief is that in a “rush” to cram in as much math as possible, students often aren’t given the chance to struggle and learn and develop the tenacity necessary for effective critical thinking.
How can we change this in a way that enables students that are planning on careers in a technical area the freedom to acquire the math background they will need, without penalizing those that don’t need this coursework by relegating them to the category of “less qualified” applicant? We don’t profess to have all the answers. Perhaps one place to begin is suggested here. What do you think?
Please share your thoughts! We’d especially like to hear from anyone involved with the college admissions process.
We’d love for this piece to spark an ongoing dialogue and to hear from as many people as possible. This won’t be the least time we write about this so the more that want to join in the better.