Modern Math Education Doesn’t Add Up for Today’s Students, New Book Says

Posted By Mandy McCaslan on July 18, 2016 at 1:37 pm
Modern Math Education Doesn’t Add Up for Today’s Students, New Book Says

Many may recall days gone by of sitting in a friend’s basement, crowded around an old coffee table playing The Game of Life. “Choose the life you want!” the game boasts. While it throws twists and turns your way as you try to reach your goals, never will you recall drawing a card that says “Learn abstract math to move forward on your path.” But that is exactly the so-called obstacle being thrown at high school and college students today, according to a noted critic of modern math education.

Andrew Hacker, a political scientist and author, recently released The Math Myth: And other STEM Delusions, wherein he challenges the status quo of math education. In the book, Hacker asserts that math can present a roadblock for some students. Specifically, algebra II and calculus are, by Hacker’s metric, often the cause of dropouts and failures.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, says Hacker is “dead on” in identifying the problems associated with math education. “The math game starts in elementary school and follows students to high school and beyond, yet only 10% of the workforce will use this abstract math in their chosen professions.” Carnevale continues, “Do the rules of the game make sense? No, but to win the game, you must play by the rules.”

While these more abstract math courses may not have any direct vocational use, Carnevale says, high school students must take them to be a competitive applicant to selective colleges and universities. “The argument for these courses is that they teach rigor, but there’s no empirical evidence to support that claim,” he says. “However, my children took those classes, and I would encourage parents to suggest their children do the same in order to be competitive on their college applications.”

Should math education rules change?

If the rules make no sense, as Carnevale says, then how did abstract math rise to become so vital to our high school and college curricula? Hans Hanson, national college adviser with CollegeLogic, a service that matches students and colleges, believes it boils down to those three letters that strike fear in the hearts of high school students across the nation—SAT. “The SAT weights half of its priority to math; this is very out of proportion to what’s necessary to success in life and in business,” he says. Hanson doesn’t think the curricula will change until the SAT changes. “If you’re trying to prepare students for college, part of that is preparing them for the SAT, but much of these skills will not be used after taking that one exam.”

Still, there are others who don’t buy Hacker’s thesis on math education. “I agree that we aren’t able to show the immediate relevance of these courses,” says David Kim, CEO of C2 Education, a Duluth, Ga.-based company that helps students prepare for college admissions tests. “However, it’s amazing that we would try to dumb down what we learn in school, especially if you consider how we compare worldwide in the STEM fields.”

He has a different take on math education. “The issue is not with the math itself, but in how it’s being taught,” Kim says. At C2, tutors provide a real world construct for the use of Algebra II and calculus in their work with high school students. “The usefulness of these courses on a student’s future needs to be codified by both the teachers and parents,” Kim says.

Jonathan Farley, professor of mathematics at Morgan State University, agrees that standard ways of teaching the subject can miss the mark. “Math is often times taught in a way that makes it appear useless,” he says. Many instructors teach a concept and give practice problems to be worked ad nauseam without ever connecting to the practical application of said concept. If we were to put this into taxonomy terms, math is oft taught to only the knowledge and comprehension level. “While the nature of the subject seems to be application based, it’s never fully fleshed out as such in a practical way. The problem is not the content,” Farley says, “but in the inability to reveal the beauty of math. You don’t study math merely to learn how to build bridges; you study mathematics because it is the poetry of the universe.”

While experts tend to disagree on the utility of abstract math, all seem to agree that the current way it’s taught doesn’t work. Hacker merely is shining a brighter light on an issue worth increased scrutiny. “People need quantitative skill–we just need to determine what type is most necessary,” Carnevale says. For now, students should continue to pass go; collect their $200; and be sure to take algebra II and calculus until the math game has a revised set of rules.

Mandy McCaslan
Mandy McCaslan is a higher education professional and public speaker with more than 10 years' experience. She obtained her master of education degree from Clemson University. Mandy's research interests include millennials, higher education assessment and student learning outcomes.

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