Math and K-12 Schools: Addressing the Historic Mismatch

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For too many years, K-12 education has been largely oblivious to the gaping mismatch between mathematics curricula and the needs and reality of the working world. It is increasingly apparent that the math most elementary and secondary students are required to learn rarely equips them for the practical demands of their future careers. But that may be changing. A growing number of education experts are calling for long-overdue adjustments to college and K-12 mathematics—especially to secondary math and the traditional algebra-to-calculus course sequence that schools have followed for decades.

The good news is that even modest, provisional actions by state and federal education agencies could help schools adjust math instruction to more effectively prepare students for their futures.

Despite the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on more practical math and conceptual understanding, math instruction is still overly beholden to the largely abstract, algebra-based standards that dominate secondary math education. But the recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act affords states and school districts the flexibility to develop their own curriculum, instruction, and assessments, which they could shape to better reflect the math students will use.


I first encountered the incompatibility between school math and real-world math as a school improvement researcher in the 1990s. In interviews, more than a dozen engineers told me that they rarely used algebra, much less geometry, trigonometry, or calculus. Most of their work required simple algebraic concepts they could learn on the job and arithmetic and statistics for more sophisticated tasks.

I couldn’t help but wonder: How many other professional-preparation programs required either too much or the wrong kind of math for prospective workers? And how many students might have become excellent engineers had it not been for the formidable barrier of required high school and college math courses?

It is time for the United States to reassess what Arnold Packer, a former assistant U.S. secretary of labor, calls a "failed math curriculum"—one that acts as a barrier to student motivation, graduation, and success in many professions.

Prominent educators have spoken out in recent decades about the need to rethink how U.S. schools teach math. Throughout his career, the late Lynn Steen, a former president of the Mathematics Association of America and a respected mathematician, questioned the dominance of the algebra-to-calculus course sequence in K-12 schools. He advocated a more practical quantitative literacy, with the selective use of algebra and the opportunity for students to apply elementary skills such as arithmetic, percentages, and ratios to real-world data in order to understand issues like global warming, the price of gas, or college tuition. He also recognized arithmetic’s important role in the fields of science, engineering, and technology.

A more current critique of math education comes from Andrew Hacker, a professor emeritus of political science at Queens College in New York. In his book The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions (The New Press, 2016), Hacker writes that math’s high failure rates at both the secondary and college levels contribute to high school and college dropout rates. Nearly 80 percent of community college students don’t graduate, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and he attributes the high number to failed math courses for many of those students.

Hacker advocates, as Steen did, less algebra and more applied arithmetic and statistics in high school and college mathematics.

Though the amount and types of math students will use in their future jobs vary by career, we should at least take a closer look at the math that matters in different families of professions—and adjust accordingly. Packer estimated in the late 1990s that only 4 percent of the working population—calculated by the number of engineers, scientists, computer analysts, financial analysts, and accountants in the labor force—used advanced algebraic concepts. More recently, fewer than 25 percent of U.S. employees reported using math beyond simple fractions and percentages, according to a 2013 survey by sociologist Michael Handel.

Because there is evidence that only minimal amounts of algebra-based math are required in a majority of careers—including many STEM careers—the current teaching and testing methods crowd out opportunities for students to learn real-world mathematics. Moreover, the abstract nature of these courses makes them the least engaging and most difficult to learn for many students.

More Opinion

Allow me to suggest some initial actions that could put schools on a path toward more engaging math education for K-12 students.

The U.S. Department of Education could sponsor a university or regional lab to conduct a thorough, federally funded study of STEM and other professions to determine which algebra and arithmetic skills are actually employed in which professions, as well as the kinds of real-world mathematical, arithmetical, and statistical problems and tasks schools could incorporate into math education to promote true quantitative literacy.

Universities and state departments of education could then use those findings to inform all math educators’ preservice education and professional development so they could teach students more purposefully. The findings could also inform the development of government-funded pilot courses in applied algebra and geometry, including arithmetic and, eventually, trigonometry and calculus.

State consortia, school districts, and regional entities could adjust and refine the courses based on student satisfaction, academic success, and STEM and workplace readiness, as well as feedback from leaders in science, medicine, and business.

These suggestions are hardly radical. But they would nudge K-12 mathematics education, at long last, toward policies that could reduce student failure and frustration in math and help educators prepare students in more efficient and sensible ways for the demands of the real world.

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