Making the Case for Advanced Math

By Sean Cavanagh — November 10, 2008 2 min read
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There’s been a steady push to encourage students to take more math, and tougher math, in high school. Business leaders, advocacy organizations, and state and local policymakers provided a lot of the muscle behind that movement, arguing that high-level math skills are going to become increasingly important in the years to come.

But why is advanced math important? For students, teachers, and parents, sometimes the responses can seem pretty vague, and unsatisfying. Some people will tell you it’s because more jobs are going to require strong math skills, and the thinking that comes from taking demanding courses. Others say it’s because advanced math will help prepare you for college. And a lot of high school students would probably tell you it’s because that math will help you get into college. Those schools, the thinking goes, will be impressed with the courses that appear on your transcript and by your top-notch scores on college-admissions tests, where that math is needed. Some have argued that the pressure to increase math standards needs to be rethought. I wrote a story exploring some of these points a couple years ago, “What Kind of Math Matters?”

Now a Washington organization, Achieve, is attempting to make a stronger, and more specific case for advanced math, through the release of a “Math Works advocacy kit” It’s a collection of documents that make a stronger link between students taking demanding math and their success in college and the workplace—and the overall health of the U.S. economy.

The toolkit includes fact sheets and policy papers making the case for advanced math. But one of the most interesting features is a series of brochures that try to explain how specific math skills are used by workers in different sectors of the American economy. The five brochures focus on aerospace, manufacturing, construction, health care, and information technology.

As someone who’s read a lot of papers and heard a lot of presentations attempting to make a case between math and workplace skills, these brochures make for interesting reading. One of them, for instance, looks at the math skills used on a Toyota assembly line, and how the company seeks to provide training to new hires, many of whom have only a high school degree, in various kinds of applied math. These include computing with rational and real numbers, modeling, and using linear equations connected to electronics. The “capstone course” for these new trainees at Toyota is “Troubleshooting,” in which they’re taught how to use pieces of math, physics, and electronics to resolve problems that emerge on the factory floor.

The documents also discuss the availability of jobs in these five sectors of the economy and what education and skill level is typically required. They offer statistics on how much education is generally required in those jobs, and how much is likely to be required in the future.

Achieve’s document seems aimed at taking the sometimes abstract policy discussions that occur about the need for strong standards and math and science and creating a more direct link with the work that goes on in offices and factories every day. You may not need a bachelor’s degree to get some of those jobs—a two-year degree or, in some cases, a high school diploma may suffice—according to the group’s argument, but you’re likely to need some advanced math.

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