There has been widespread panic in the United States over the state of our math education. Poor performance of American students on various national tests has raised major concerns among educators.
All this concern is based on the assumption that there is a single established set if mathematical skills and methods that everyone needs to know to prepare for future careers. The truth is that different sets of math skills are useful for different career paths, and our educational system should reflect that.
Schools in the United States offer a sequence of algebra, geometry, pre-calculus and calculus. This abstract curriculum is simply not the most effective way to prepare the vast majority of high school students for the workforce and future careers.
For instance, it is not often that most adults come across a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation. Nor do they need to know what constitutes a “group of transformations,” or “complex number.” Professional mathematicians and physicists need to have an understanding of this, but the average citizen would be better off studying how mortgages are priced.
Math curriculum should be focused on solving real life problems. But there is a world of difference between teaching “pure” math, with no context, and teaching relevant problems that will lead students to appreciate how a mathematical formula models and clarifies real-world situations. This is how algebra courses currently proceed – introducing the mysterious variable x, which many students struggle to understand. By contrast, a contextual approach, in the style of all working scientists, would introduce formulas and math facts using abbreviations for simple quantities – for instance, Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, where E stands for energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light.
This can be achieved by replacing the normal sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and standard engineering. In the finance course, students would learn the exponential function, use formulas, multiplication worksheets in spreadsheets and study the budgets of people, companies and governments.
Parents, teachers and state educational boards have a real choice. The traditional high school math sequence is not the only road to mathematical competence. For the United States to move forward in its educational process and compete on a global basis, we need to teach in a manner that makes sense to all students. The skills taught must be useful throughout the student’s lifetime.