A Professor’s Plea to Stop Teaching Calculus in High Schools

By Liana Loewus — July 22, 2014 2 min read
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A Johns Hopkins University professor argues in a Forbes magazine piece that high schools should stop teaching calculus, and instead teach computer science and statistics.

Steven Salzberg, who teaches medicine, biostatistics, and (surprise!) computer science at the Baltimore-based university, writes that in the digital age, “math education needs a reboot.” Students are increasingly reliant on technology, and therefore should learn “what’s going on under the hood,” he contends. And data science is an emerging field, so statistics could provide the foundation for a variety of career paths.

Calculus, on the other hand, doesn’t “serve the needs of the 21st century,” he writes.

Salzberg goes on:

Convincing schools to give up calculus won’t be easy. I imagine that most math educators will scream in protest at the mere suggestion, in fact. In their never-ending competition to look good on a blizzard of standardized tests, schools push students to accelerate in math starting in elementary school, and they offer calculus as early as the 10th grade. This doesn’t serve students well: The vast majority will never use calculus again. And those who do need it—future engineers, physicists, and the like—can take it in college.

It’s an interesting argument, but you could reasonably be asking: Why couldn’t schools teach all three subjects? Salzberg doesn’t touch that—he seems to think saving calculus for university will free up high school credits and ensure more students take what he deems 21st-century-appropriate courses (it would also save schools money no doubt). But of course schools can offer all three courses—and more schools may be headed that way.

As of now, only an estimated 10 percent of high schools nationwide offer computer science courses, but that number appears to be on the rise. And proponents of teaching statistics say that subject may be on the rise as well, given that the common-core math standards include statistics starting at the middle school level.

And while, according to the 2013 NAEP report, just 18 percent of 12th graders have taken calculus, computer science and stats courses don’t seem to be replacing it for now. In fact, in most states, computer science does not even satisfy a math or science requirement, and is instead categorized as an elective.

But I’d like to hear from readers on whether Salzberg’s proposal is worth considering. Should computer science and statistics trump calculus in high school? And what about the idea of leaving colleges to teach calculus to those who really need it? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.