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Will Ditching Calculus Make Math More Relevant?

Increasingly, statistics and datasets are in the air we breathe, and some renowned mathematicians say it’s time for K-12 math to reflect this new reality.

October 9, 2020
Student presenting data at a whiteboard
skynesher / iStock

The sequence of courses that make up our K-12 mathematics curricula is stuck in the past, writes Daniel Rockmore for Salon. It passes through algebra and geometry and back to algebra—making an “algebra-geometry-algebra sandwich,” Rockmore claims, with an unnecessary pit stop to contemplate Euclidean proofs—before culminating in calculus, which many view as the pinnacle of K-12 math and a gateway to prestigious engineering colleges.

All of that feels fusty and increasingly antiquated, which makes sense if you consider that the current mathematics curricula goes back to the “famous 1892 Committee of Ten that met at the behest of the National Education Association to standardize public education.” Since then the world has witnessed an Industrial Revolution followed by an equally disruptive, and ongoing, Digital Revolution.

“Perhaps the single most important development over the last 50 years has been the rise of data and computers,” says Steve Levitt, economist and co-author of Freakonomics, in an interview with Rockmore, who is a professor of computational science and the associate dean for the sciences at Dartmouth College.

Yet kids’ math curriculum, notes Levitt, seems to be “air-dropped directly from my own childhood.” And that doesn’t make sense he says. If we want to challenge students and connect what they are learning in math to the real world, then calculus—and the math sequence more generally—should integrate the study of statistics and introduce methods to break down and visualize big, complicated datasets. It’s harder for students to shrug off the relevance of math when it helps them interpret baseball statistics, political campaign modeling, or environmental impacts.

“A mathematical way of thinking, numeracy, data literacy, is far more important today than it has been; the ability to visualize data, the ability to make sense out of a pile of numbers, has never been more important, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the math curriculum,” Levitt insists.

Calculus is a 'Horrible and Inequitable Filter'

In elementary school, kids learn basic arithmetic before moving into algebra and geometry in middle and high school. “For some, math stops here. For others, there is often an honors track that speeds things up. Increasingly, honors or not, students get to pre-calculus or calculus, which is often revisited in the first year of college, and is the last bit of formal math a person will ever taste.”

Mathematicians like Jo Boaler, the Nomellini and Olivier Professor of Education at Stanford University, say the traditional math pathway can create significant equity issues—she calls calculus a “horrible and inequitable filter.” As early as 6th grade, kids may take a placement exam that sets them on an academic pathway that’s designed to lead to high school calculus, or exclude them from it. For Boaler, calculus casts a shadow over the whole math landscape “because of the influence it has both on the curriculum that precedes it as well as its influence on students’ college prospects moving forward,” writes Rockmore.

A well-formed data science curriculum brings together “critical thinking and quantitative skills, [and] storytelling with and through numbers, supported by evidence,” Rockmore says. It can be both highly collaborative and closely connected to the humanities. Thus, “if data science were a part of a high school curriculum, it could provide a mechanism for girls to show their quantitative skills and it also could be a boost to humanities programs as well,” Rockmore claims, alluding to the well-known equity issues at the intersection of math and gender.

And when math curriculum is more intentionally interdisciplinary and problem-focused, it tends to become more inclusive and more broadly motivating. In a 2008 study from the National Academy of Engineers, researchers asked people if they wanted to be engineers. Girls were twice as likely as boys to say no, writes Carly Berwick, a teacher in New Jersey. “But when asked if they would like to design a safe water system, save the rainforest, or use DNA to solve crimes, the girls answered yes.”

Introducing Data Literacy

Some districts are already taking steps to integrate data literacy into the curriculum, writes Catherine Gewertz for Education Week. At Venice High School in Los Angeles, and now at 51 other schools in Southern California, seniors can enroll in an Introduction to Data Science class which fulfills Common Core State Standards for high school statistics and probability, and meets the math requirement for admission to California’s two public university systems.

Math teacher Brent Rojo, who teaches the class to his Venice High School students, says the lessons help kids connect math content to situations they can relate to, like wildfires, movie plots, and partisan politics. “The course attracts kids who haven't had good experiences with math that has no context,” Rojo told Gewertz. “In my class, half the battle is giving students the skill set to look at data, and half is restoring their faith in math.”

Widely used standardized tests like the SAT are also beginning to build in data-related content. In both the quantitative and verbal sections of the SAT, there is a 20 percent increase in questions that test kids’ data literacy skills. That’s an intentional shift by testing company College Board to “make the SAT more relevant to what is actually being taught in the average first year of college,” Rockmore notes. Similarly, the company revamped its AP courses to reflect the importance of data—and is seeing a significant jump in the number of female, Black, LatinX, and rural students enrolled in AP courses.

Making Math Relevant to More Students

For now, Rockmore writes that Levitt, Boaler, and others support “the idea of streamlining the current curriculum,” so that essentially one year of the algebra-geometry-algebra sandwich is removed from kids’ math pathways. “A newly streamlined curriculum would then give space for a year of data exploration and integration of computing, maybe even more mathematics exploration—again, assisted by computing,” Rockmore concludes. “It leaves open the possibility of a math curriculum that would be relevant for all students.”

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