Mathematics Project

Good-Paying Careers in Data Are Booming. But Schools Aren’t Teaching It

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 31, 2023 7 min read
Illustration of city buildings with financial, job, data, technology, and statistics iconography.
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This city has become one of the fastest-growing technology hubs in the country. The region’s low cost of living and cheap real estate has drawn heavy-hitters like Microsoft and Facebook, and that success has helped Utah acquire one of the highest rates of billion-dollar startups of any state.

But business leaders say the schools in this area, which has come to be known as “Silicon Slopes,” need to build a stronger foundation in data and statistics skills for their future workers if that growth is to be long lived. Elizabeth Converse, the executive director of Utah Tech Leads, an industry group in Salt Lake City, said she sees national declines in K-12 math performance, particularly in data and statistics, as economic “red flags” for her state as well as the nation.

“Our companies are growing at a clip that is kind of unimaginable in a state our size. We just can’t, we don’t have enough talent to fill the jobs,” Converse said. “For us, it’s really important that Utah lead the pack when it comes to absorbing data standards into everyday curriculum so that students are taught this from the very beginning.”

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First grade students participate in a Slow Reveal Graph exercise about heart rates in different animals led by Math Specialist Jenna Laib at Michael Driscoll School in Brookline, Mass. on June 1, 2023.
First grade students participate in a Slow Reveal Graph exercise about heart rates in different animals led by Math Specialist Jenna Laib at Michael Driscoll School in Brookline, Mass. on June 1, 2023.
Sophie Park for Education Week

Converse’s group is working with the state board of education to develop a data-science pathway in high school and integrate more data science throughout the Beehive State’s K-12 math standards, which are up for renewal this fall.

Converse said industry groups like hers are working to change the image of data science as only useful for science, technology, engineering, and math careers.

“All the way from our state legislature down to the student level, the way we talk about math is like this isolated thing like a club,” she said. “Instead, data science needs to be a seamless transition. It needs to be a part of [students’] education overall.”

The efforts of these advocacy groups are part of a nationwide trend to expand how teachers, parents, and students consider the full range of possible careers that utilize math skills.

Data and statistics know-how has become one of the most sought-after skills for new employees, even in fields outside of STEM. From a social entrepreneur using housing statistics to investigate building sites to a YouTube vlogger analyzing his content views and audience demographics, technology tools have made data a bigger part of many jobs.

“It’s important to keep in mind that ... most of us are probably using statistics in our work under the hood,” said Geoff Hing, a data journalist at the Marshall Project, a nonprofit investigative news group, “and that’s especially the case with generative AI [artificial intelligence] as ChatGPT becomes a part of more and more industries.”

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that over the next decade, 2 of the 10 fastest-growing career fields will be related to data and statistics. The numbers of jobs available for statisticians and data scientists—both of which boast annual incomes around $100,000—are expected to increase more than 30 percent, and most related careers also are growing faster than average.

“We see these effects cutting across sectors, and it’s every entry-level job where data and technology and the basics of statistics are being used more frequently,” said Zarek Drozda, the director of the nonprofit Data Science for Everyone, one of the groups helping Utah and other states.

Sheri Johnson, a math teacher at the independent Mount Vernon School in Sandy Springs, Ga., said schools across her state are expanding data and statistics standards across K-12 this fall, in part to broaden future job opportunities for students.

“There’s a disconnect between what we learn in school and what employers want people to know. Employers really want employees who can use spreadsheets and data,” Johnson said.

If schools begin to introduce data and statistics in elementary school, she noted, students are also likely to get earlier exposure to the kinds of jobs that use data.

While mathematics fields can seem abstract to students, statistics can give teachers a way to help students develop a personal stake in their careers, according to public-health researcher Kristin Baltrusaitis. For example, at Harvard University’s Center for Biostatistics in AIDS Research, Baltrusaitis uses statistics from clinical trials to study differences between adults and children in effective doses and potential side effects for medicine used to treat HIV, the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

“I look at infants and children and pregnant people, because these are populations that are typically not included in regular clinical trial designs. So we want to look at how effective are these drugs in these different populations,” she said.

When either teaching students statistics or guiding their career planning, “I think there’s a huge benefit of making those interdisciplinary connections of [students] seeing the goal and the purpose of what they’re learning in their math course and where it could be useful,” said Baltrusaitis, who previously taught high school math and science through the New York City Teaching Fellows program.

Are the roles of calculus and data changing?

Utah has long integrated different strands of math, including calculus and statistics, in high school. But in the run-up to math standards discussions in 2021, Mark Tullis, a co-founder of the Salt Lake City-based TechBuzz, a local industry-news group, surveyed the area’s business leaders about the kinds of math they had learned in high school and the math they most needed in employees.

“So I asked them, ‘Did you take calculus in high school?’ And most of them said yes. ‘And are you applying it in your work, your career right now?’ And they would say, ‘Indirectly, I guess calculus helped me achieve a certain level of problem-solving skills.’”

“And I said, well, did you have any data science in high school? Any statistics? ‘No, in college but not in high school’ was generally the response,” Tullis said.

“Generally, the applicability of calculus or even algebra to their daily work was very small, like 5 or 10 percent said it was relevant to their current careers. But what they did say was that if they could have learned more statistics, more data science, and machine-learning skills in high school, it would have prepared them to a much greater extent,” Tullis said. “The results were pretty clear, that the companies that are hiring for jobs that are math-related want data science to be taught in high schools so that the workforce is better prepared.”

In most states, statistics is a high school elective after students complete a “traditional sequence” of at least Algebra 1 and 2 and geometry by grade 11. But the vast majority of students never get that far.

A 2022 study by the University of Texas-Austin’s Charles A. Dana Center found that across nine states including Utah only about 27 percent of students complete that course sequence by grade 11, and only 15 percent ended up taking statistics in high school.

Low-income students and students of color, who are already underrepresented in calculus courses, likewise end up with less access to data and statistics courses, according to Josh Recio, a course program specialist in secondary mathematics at the Charles Dana Center at the University of Texas-Austin.

Back in Utah, nearly 40 districts have signed onto the state pilot to develop a data-science pathway.

“Because we have standards revisions coming up in the fall, the data that we collect from the pilot, I think, will make a compelling case for a data-science strand to be built,” said Lindsey Henderson, secondary-math specialist for the Utah board of education.

Evidence of effectiveness will be critical because in other states like California, standards changes have led to conflicts between advocates for calculus and those who favor statistics pathways, something San Antonio statistics teacher Dashiell Young-Saver, called “weird and unproductive.”

Instead, Young-Saver, who creates statistics lessons for teachers on the site Skew the Script, argued that schools would be better off infusing data and statistics education across the curriculum—both in math and in other subjects like science or civics—to encourage students to think more broadly about their applications.

“I think students are not fully aware that statistics is one of the most relevant maths for the professional world now,” he said. “Ultimately, calculus is used by engineers, physicists, and a few other professions. Stats is used by everyone else—and also engineers and physicists.”

Dive Deeper

This story is part of Miscalculating Math, a deep examination of math instruction.
Overview and key data: Advocates say reforms in math teaching are pushing out statistics and geometry and driving a drop in students’ math scores. Here’s what you need to know.
Q&As: Hear three professionals talk about how they use statistics and geometry in their careers.
Handy guide: Find tips, lesson ideas, and free resources for beefing up instruction in statistics and geometry.
Quiz: Test your knowledge of math concepts, and then see how U.S. students fared.
Complete Coverage: There’s even more to explore on this topic. Check out the complete collection, Miscalculating Math.

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