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Mathematics Curriculum-It's Time for a Change

In his recent article in the New York Times, entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?”, Andrew Hacker makes a strong and provocative statement:

“There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic”.

In this article I will use the word Algebra to mean the traditional curriculum found in the courses typically called Pre-Algebra, Algebra I, Algebra II, and Pre-Calculus. The name Pre-Calculus can be used as a synonym for Algebra when grouping all these courses together because the primary purpose of these courses is to prepare students for Calculus. Surprisingly, my research indicates that only about 8% of people in the US take and pass Calculus. It seems that we are failing, both literally and figuratively, the vast majority of our students. They sense that the traditional mathematics curriculum is not for them, and they are correct.

When it is proposed that the US mathematics curriculum should be overhauled by eliminating much of the Algebra currently taught, the typical rebuttal is to point out that when students learn Algebra, in addition to being prepared for Calculus, they learn how to think quantitatively. I agree, but suggest it makes more sense for students to become quantitatively literate while studying topics that are relevant to their everyday lives. To get a sense of how irrelevant the current high school math curriculum is, look at the SAT Math Level II questions on http://www.analyzemath.com/practice_tests/sat_subject/level_2_sample_1.html. Most of the problems on the SAT II, Math Level I and Level II are not applicable to real life. There are some potentially useful topics included, namely Statistics, Probability, and Data Analysis, but unfortunately they represent only 10% of these standardized assessments. The College Board, as well as the Common Core Standards, emphasize pure mathematics almost to the exclusion of real-world applications, forcing the math-teaching community to spend the vast majority of class time on traditional, Calculus-driven “skill & drill”, which hasn’t changed much in over a century.

What is particularly bizarre about the preoccupation with the teaching of Algebra/preparation for Calculus is that very few of the 8% who do take and pass Calculus actually use it in their professional lives. Most engineers and doctors, for example, use Statistics on a daily basis, but rarely or never use Calculus.

Unfortunately, colleges view students’ success in arbitrarily chosen Algebra/Pre-Calculus curricula as a proxy for intelligence. It is time that educators, administrators, and policy-makers wake up and smell the Statistics. It is time to turn the tables on the standard math curriculum by spending the vast majority of our time teaching Statistics, Probability, and Data Analysis; these are the topics that help students make sense of what politicians say, decide whether to buy a lottery ticket, and plan for retirement. When that is accomplished, the general population will become quantitatively literate, will see the relevance of math in everyday life, and will enjoy mathematics for a change. To a large extent, the current mathematics curriculum limits students’ access to educational and occupational opportunities. Let’s instead inspire students with intriguing, powerful, and useful mathematics that prepares them for the 21st Century; if we do they might be motivated to continue studying mathematics… including Calculus!

Nils Ahbel is a mathematics teacher at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, MA. His free, full year high school math course available at https://dalearn.deerfield.edu/login/index.php; click “Login as guest”.
November 27th, 2012 @ 10:48AM