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?

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.

Where do you stand? 

Reader Comments 0

265 comments
Timfany Mayfield
Timfany Mayfield

As a parent that has to help with homework, you want to say yes, but when you think internationally we are just catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to concepts and theories that are taught in math and science, our kids will be able to be more competitive in the S.T.E.M. field if they get the concepts down early instead of college because that is their major

Janet Jones
Janet Jones

it's not about the math. it's to exercise and condition your higher level "thought process"...i could write a book, but, it does help when making management decisions and you have to take multiple factors into consideration before a final determination is made. For example, should I cook Spaghetti for the kids tonight? Or, should I make hamburgers? ..hmmmm...let's do a Cost Analysis....see?? we really do need higher level math...it's very necessary for these types of everyday decisions.

Michelle Faulkner
Michelle Faulkner

This is something I go back and forth on. I teach high school math and too often I see students come into algebra 2 who haven't mastered basic math. They are not ready but too often that is simply because of lack of effort and it isn't an ability issue. Parents need to expect and require their children to do their best and not allow them to give up just because something is difficult. Math is challenging. There are many times I had to let my own child cry it out. When she was done, we sat down and tackled the assignment. Being able to think and persevere through solving problems is an important skill and math is a good way to learn that skill.

Michelle Faulkner
Michelle Faulkner

Donna Heald the new ways being taught are really just trying to explain why the math works. I like showing all the different ways for students to solve problems but don't test on specific strategies. Solve anyway you can as long as you show me what you did is almost always my response. That being said there are sometimes methods that students need to know for given types of problems.

Donna Heald
Donna Heald

Do you think the new way of doing math being taught has an effect? I have heard adult mentors say that some of the "new" techniques are unknown to them, so it's hard to help the kids. Imagine how parents feel...

Melissa Travis Beavers
Melissa Travis Beavers

Ummmmmmmmm yes!!!!!!!! My poor daughter that's in 7th grad is doing unnecessary math that she will never use

Kari Allen Apted
Kari Allen Apted

This is a huge pet peeve of mine. Three of my four kids struggle with math. The other has a real gift for it, that was evident practically from birth. I can't even articulate the stress that these higher math requirements have caused for my family. One child opted to drop out because his supposedly "excellent" school was utterly useless in following through on helping him with his math struggles. It was against our wishes, but I understood his frustration after three years of all of us trying to work with them to no avail. When I was in high school, you started math at the level that fit you and as long as you progressed each year and completed algebra, you could graduate. Now public school is nothing but trying to fit all kids into one uniform mold, one that many will never be able to accommodate. No wonder it fails so often.

Donna Heald
Donna Heald

A common complaint is that public schools do not "challenge" students. That said, it does no good to try to teach some kids higher math. I know, because I was one of those who took Advanced English Lit (pre AP years) and a course called Algebra 2 for Seniors, aka, Algebra 1 1/2 for those who hadn't a snowballs chance of passing Alg 2, much less geometry or trig....\U0001f604

Leif Andersen
Leif Andersen

I don't consider algebra II or geometry to be high level math, I absolutely think that those courses should have a place in high school curriculum. However, calculus and trigonometry are examples of higher level math that I believe should be introduced at the college level if it is relevant to the student's major.

Reid Lyons
Reid Lyons

It teaches problem solving, analytical thinking, logical thinking, etc. It's necessary.

Tammie Smith
Tammie Smith

How about when your kids get home from school,

Sari Masri
Sari Masri

Stop dumbing down our country. Turn the tv off, shut down video games , get your head out of fantasy football & learn math. Don't whine when you can't compete for jobs on the world stage. Get educated to stop poverty. Dumb article by ajc . Promote education

Belinda Sellers Ciani
Belinda Sellers Ciani

I hate algebra and don't see any real use for it in my job, but many jobs use it. So teach them while they are young and it is easier to learn.

Heidi Krause Chancey
Heidi Krause Chancey

If they can handle high level math they should take it. They may change their minds about whatever they think they want to do after high school and go into a field that requires it. Why limit their options.

Chuck Jackson
Chuck Jackson

I've got a app for that... What the app doesn't cover the program does. Things I didn't learn in school. How to run a business, balance a check book, a Trade, Principles of Banking & Interest, America isn't a Democracy but a Constitutional Republic, The Media doesn't focus on Truth in Reporting but a self catering Agenda, Taxation is Theft, The War on Drugs is nothing more than justification for more spending, War on drugs is a War never ment to be Won, for above reason, Incarceration will be used to stimulate the income of both State & Local Goberments, Politicians uses War to further their own financial agenda, while crying Freedom as they remove the Freedoms of other country's because they don't meet their standards, Not once has the military fought in the last 100 years in the defense of any Freedom of Americans, Not since WW2 have we had any business going to War. Math ? Here's math in schools today. 3 Clowns grilling 5.5 purple steaks on a propane grill, 2.3 Clowns leave. How many Elephants are awake in New York ? Common Core Stupidity ! But Billions being made on it!

Kyle Kollynn Hodge
Kyle Kollynn Hodge

Yeah integration by parts, trigonometric substitution, and knowing how to integrate cot^2 x is vital.

Tammy Perkins
Tammy Perkins

yes and a lot of them don't understand it so they get bad grades .

Edie Chase
Edie Chase

Absolutely not. They all need to learn critical thinking

Howard Wajchman
Howard Wajchman

This kind of dumbing down to those whining parents and teachers unions is what gave us the cupcakes with their safe spaces and protesting idiots who have no clue about winning and losing because they've all been given "participation trophies" instead of reality!!!

Trent Geldersma
Trent Geldersma

Yes it's a waste of time. How about keeping a budget .

Michael Lee
Michael Lee

Went all the way up to calculus in HS, up to this day I still had no use for it ,, absolute waste of time

Melissa Dawn Hunt
Melissa Dawn Hunt

I guess it would really all need to depend on what area of concentrated studies they intend to pursue. It seems like a waste of resources, class time etc to teach these subjects to certain students who are not going into specific career paths that would require such courses. Force feeding cookie cutter curriculum on students only discourages and frustrates these kids.

Julia Johnson
Julia Johnson

Dont go over board, they will learn enough in life.

Jacqueline Bennett
Jacqueline Bennett

Yes.. If the student is not going in a field that requires calculus then why are they having to take calculous??

Harrold Preston Roberts
Harrold Preston Roberts

Math is not just about the mechanisms of adding, subtracting, diving, multiplying and solving for x. It opens the mind up to being resourceful in process thinking which correlates with all other subjects and eventually, in college and in life. I'd hate to see a generation of middle and high school students that don't engaged in higher level maths. #TheDumbingDownOfAmerica

Adam Wilson
Adam Wilson

No, but we probably aren't doing a good job preparing many students for "higher level" math, and we cannot safely assume students know they will never use something. They certainly won't use it if it's never added to their tool bag. And remember that we are competing with nations where calculus is regularly taught in high school. If we're struggling to keep students from flunking out of algebra and geometry, we have serious systemic deficiencies in our educational systems (and culture) which we already know inadequately serve the poor. The problem in part is that any attempt to change or improve cirricula is met with pushback from largely inumerate parents who can't work out their children's homework and immediately assume the new methods are inferior.

Jackson
Jackson

You think increasing high school drop outs is good? 

Susan Martindale
Susan Martindale

I believe students should have a choice. When students who can excel in basic math then expose them to pre algebra etc...

Susan Martindale
Susan Martindale

I never have used algebra 1 a day in my real world life. Please explain how you use it everyday when you shop or pay your bills?

R Dave Smith
R Dave Smith

I agree. I'm stunned at what there forcing my 10 and 12 year old to do. It's ridiculous

Jeff Groom
Jeff Groom

AJC has turned into a classic trash paper

Becky Farmer
Becky Farmer

You're making people's lives miserable with math that I'll probably never use and making it difficult to understand it's not necessary

Linda Roache Lindsay
Linda Roache Lindsay

Math skills help us think analytically and objectively. Why in he world would we want anyone to think clearly?

Ann Anzini
Ann Anzini

Depends on what you consider higher level math, algebra two, and geometry I still use every day 30+ years later, but if we are asking them to learn calculus or differential equations and then they plan on going to cooking school I think they really do not need that.

Maansi Dommeti
Maansi Dommeti

Math helps develop your brain- it's like exercise for your brain, not unlike pursuing music, arts, and sciences. These are basic subjects that continue to push the limit of how your mind can think. High school years are crucial in terms of growth and development...we should absolutely encourage students to pursue higher level math, even if it may not be applicable on a day to day basis.

Maansi Dommeti
Maansi Dommeti

Also Algebra and Geometry is not high level math..........it's very basic math. There is SO much more advanced math...this argument is like saying "My kids learned out to read, do they really need to read chapter books?"

Matt Woodard
Matt Woodard

This has been a soap box of mine for years. Unless a High Schooler has aspirations of a profession that requires advanced mathematics (medical, engineering, etc), mathematics should stop at Algebra / Geometry. Instead, Economics / Finance should be part of core curriculum. People deal with money for their entire life, yet most have no educational exposure or foundation. This needs to change. Trig & Calculus for the majority of students is a complete waste of time, energy, and resources.

Lesley Miller
Lesley Miller

First of all, economics is a core class required to graduate. We even have an end of course milestone for it. Many seniors just took this test in December. Second, most students stop math after algebra 2. Those who do not are usually ahead or trying to fulfill their graduation requirements. Students are required to have 4 years of math, science, social studies (which includes government and econ), and English. Everything else is whatever they want to take.

Candace Casey
Candace Casey

I say it's all great for the kids who excel in school but for the kids who really struggle, it only puts more pressure on them to barely pass or completely fail. Too much for kids to be stressed out to the max over something they will NEVER use. Not to mention that common core shyt needs to just burn and die because it's too confusing for parents who NEVER learned this technique. Errybody jus all stressed OUT lol....

Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett

no i agree math is very important n needs to be pushed, lean out on history of the past cause the past nvr sees the future, but in my bald head opinion math is absolutely necessary

Nelson Conner
Nelson Conner

I'LL TAKE A GOOD DOSE OF COMMON SENSE OVER HIGHER ED ANY DAY.NOT TAKING ANYTHING AWAY FROM COLLEGE, BUT WHAT IS BEING TAUGHT IN A LOT OF COLLEDGES IS NOT WORTH A HILL OF BEANS.

Amy Blafer
Amy Blafer

This whole argument is painful to read. There are people who are actually saying that they could not do math in school, have spent their lives avoiding math based careers, therefore schools should dump math. While we are at it why not dump all subjects that any student every made a D in at some time ever? Education is about learning to learn, not just content mastery. In 5 years, no one will remember, trigonometric identities. They will remember reasoning and proofs. In mathematics class, students learn logical reasoning. They learn application and number sense. Every student may not use imaginary numbers or logarithms, but who am I to say which students are not allowed to be biologists or electrical engineers? I open doors to possibilities with each new idea. When you limit the mathematic options available in high school, it is like saying this student is not smart enough or should not be given the chance to be whatever he/she wants in the future.

Jackson
Jackson

HUH? No one ever said eliminate anything? Just allow students not to put in one box.