Curriculum Opinion

Data Science Is the Future. Let’s Start Teaching It

The subject needs to be part of rigorous math prep leading to college and careers
By Steven D. Levitt — January 07, 2022 4 min read
Conceptual illustration of a data being examined through a smart phone
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As the coronavirus has infected millions of Americans, the news media have become saturated with numbers: new infection cases, hospitalization rates, death tolls, and vaccine trial results. Many Americans have been overwhelmed, and in part because too few of us are comfortable with data, we have been susceptible to a plague of misinformation.

Most Americans don’t have the skills and knowledge to work with data, despite their critical importance to understanding our world and making informed decisions. This data illiteracy must change, and our education system needs to prioritize data-science education for all students.

Technically speaking, data science is nothing new. Scientists, businesses, and governments have long collected and interpreted data and used it as a basis for decisionmaking. But two recent changes have made data science much more relevant to all of us. The first is an explosion in the availability of data, fed by smartphones and the internet. The second is a dramatic improvement in the quality of software tools for analyzing that data.

Despite being commonly misunderstood as a skill relevant only to technical roles, the rise of data science has had huge impacts in almost every field, from football to art history. This sea change presents many opportunities, and skills in analyzing and interpreting data can give young people access to new career opportunities. The employment-information website Glassdoor, for example, ranked “data scientist” as the second best job for 2021 based on openings, compensation, and job satisfaction. Even for those who don’t pursue data science as a career, many, many working adults—nurses, salespeople, journalists—need data skills.

More importantly, data use is a practical skill that makes education more relevant. When I wrote Freakonomics, I employed data to explore topics as diverse as sumo wrestling, real estate, and the drug trade. Similarly, educators can engage students by having them analyze data on topics that interest them like crime, the border crisis, global development, or climate change.

In many ways, this is a plea for educational pragmatism. Our world has been revolutionized by information technology, yet our K-12 curriculum is still trapped in the industrial age. Instead of teaching our young people obscure trigonometric techniques, let’s help them learn how to interpret the huge amounts of data being produced every day in our hyperconnected world.

Instead of teaching our young people obscure trigonometric techniques, let’s help them learn how to interpret the huge amounts of data being produced every day in our hyperconnected world.

So what needs to be done? Reforms should continue along a number of tracks. First, education policymakers at the state and district levels can modernize the curriculum in mathematics and other disciplines, especially in high schools, to stress data science and computational fluency; a dozen states are already starting that work. Second, universities need to change their admissions policies to accept data-science coursework as evidence of rigorous mathematics preparation. Third, federal and state policymakers should increase funding to equip educators with the tools and training necessary to teach this material effectively.

There are already signs of progress. Some organizations, like CourseKata and Bootstrap, are exposing students to powerful tools for data analysis and equipping them with the skills to do real analysis and report on their findings. CourseKata has developed a full data-science course curriculum, and Bootstrap offers flexible modules that can be incorporated across disciplines. The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences is helping to spur change by including data-science efforts in its grantmaking.

See Also

Future of Work Opinion Skip Coding, Teach Data Science
Tom Vander Ark, July 31, 2017
8 min read

But much more needs to be done, which is why my team at the University of Chicago’s Center for Radical Innovation for Social Change launched the Data Science for Everyone Coalition to mobilize and convene an active community, spark policy reform, and expand access to resources that will catalyze the expansion of data-science education in K-12 schools. In the next two years, the coalition expects to grow to 3,000 members, including teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers.

At its heart, this is a grassroots campaign. That means engaging parents at the local level about the importance of learning data science—and connecting with educators in schools across the country, who need more support in teaching data science. So far, members of the coalition have posted some important victories.

Coalition members are already increasing access to high-quality data-science education. For instance, the San Diego school district has committed to rolling out data-science education across P-12 by 2023, which will impact 120,000 students across 168 schools. The District of Columbia school system is partnering with American University to offer teacher training at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The Stanford Graduate School of Education’s teacher education program (known as STEP) is launching a new preservice teacher education course on teaching high school data science that is responsive to multiple disciplines. And companies like DataCamp, which provides data-science instruction online, and Tableau, an analytics platform, are offering their software for free to teachers and students.

These organizations are bravely pioneering a new data-based math future, and we all need to fully commit the resources required to make it happen. Let’s build a math curriculum together that engages students more fully, prepares them for successful careers, and equips them to be good citizens.

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Data Science Is the Future. Let’s Start Teaching It


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Be the Change: Strategies to Make Year-Round Hiring Happen
Learn how to leverage actionable insights to diversify your recruiting efforts and successfully deploy a year-round recruiting plan.
Content provided by Frontline
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Critical Ways Leaders Can Build a Culture of Belonging and Achievement
Explore innovative practices for using technology to build an environment of belonging and achievement for all staff and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Professional Development Webinar
Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes with Teacher-Student Relationships
Explore strategies for strengthening teacher-student relationships and hear how districts are putting these methods into practice to support positive student outcomes.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum Many Adults Did Not Learn Media Literacy Skills in High School. What Schools Can Do Now
Eighty-four percent of adults say they are on board with requiring media literacy in schools, according to a survey by Media Literacy Now.
4 min read
Image of someone reading news on their phone.
Curriculum Is Your School Facing a Book Challenge? These Online Resources May Help
Book challenges are popping up with more frequency. Here are supports for teachers fighting censorship.
5 min read
Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in recent weeks on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
Amanda Darrow, the director of youth, family, and education programs at the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in recent weeks.
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo
Curriculum Q&A These Teachers' Book List Was Going to Be Restricted. Their Students Fought Back
The Central York district planned to restrict use of some materials last year. Here's how teachers and their students turned the tide.
8 min read
Deb Lambert, director of collection management for the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library for the past three years, looks over the books at the Library Services Center on Sept. 25, 2015. When a flap occurs at the library, the matter becomes the responsibility of Lambert.
More districts are seeking to restrict access to some books or remove them from classrooms and libraries altogether.
Charlie Nye/The Indianapolis Star via AP
Curriculum Sex Education: 4 Questions and Answers About the Latest Controversy
Why the touchy issue of sex education has erupted again, and what it means for schools.
4 min read
Image of condoms.