Mathematics Opinion

It Doesn’t Add Up

By Ronald A. Wolk — February 17, 2006 3 min read
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When the latest round of uninspiring math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress triggered a chorus of dismay, a friend said to me, “I don’t understand why we demand that every kid take higher-order math in school. I have been a successful businessman for 40 years, I founded and ran a Fortune 500 company, and all the math I ever used were addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, and figuring percentages in my head.” I’ll bet he would do poorly on the 12th grade NAEP tests.

There is no disagreement that students should master basic math because it is important in meeting the demands of everyday life. But why should everyone study higher-order math?

Advocates argue that math is a powerful problem-solving tool, helping some people learn to think logically and reason clearly. True, but fortunately for the rest of us, it’s not the only path to clear thinking. Students can also become problem-solvers by studying the humanities—literature, history, philosophy—and by engaging in analysis, discourse, and debate.

I learned my times tables early and still use them every day. I took two years of algebra, plane and solid geometry, and trigonometry and memorized enough to squeak by with C’s, but I forgot virtually everything from those courses by the time the ink on my diploma was dry. That’s no boast; I’m not math-phobic. But I was relieved to discover that I was a “word person” and knew I’d never enter an occupation where higher-order math is required.

The question is whether we’re encouraging more kids to become scientists and engineers by requiring them to take algebra in 8th grade and higher-order math in high school.

Many powerful thinkers don’t know what a quadratic equation is, let alone how to solve one. I looked up the definition: “An equation in which one or more of the terms is squared but raised to no higher power, having the general form ax2 + bx + c = 0, where a, b, and c are constants.” Although I speak English, I couldn’t translate that to save my life.

Perhaps the more important reason for learning math is that it’s the language of science and engineering—a prerequisite to fully understanding and doing work in those areas. A growing concern is that the United States is not producing enough native scientists and engineers. Students flock to America from all over the world to study in our universities, then return home to compete with us. More and more of our technical work is being outsourced to countries like India and China. Our standard of living and our national security are undoubtedly linked to our leadership in science and technology.

The question is whether we’re encouraging more kids to become scientists and engineers by requiring them to take algebra in 8th grade and higher-order math in high school. I suspect that those who go into science and engineering in college are already on that track by the time they start high school because they became hooked on the appropriate subjects in the early grades.

Some kids do well in mathematics in elementary school. They experience the delicious satisfaction of solving the mystery, of breaking the code. As they move on to more challenging material, they begin to imagine a career in which math is crucial.

Science provokes endless questions in kids—about the stars, animals, snowflakes, fire, space, and so on. Gifted teachers can nourish this curiosity, encouraging youngsters to go as deeply into math as their talents and interests take them. But what about the students who reach 8th grade with neither an interest in nor talent for math or science? How likely is it that they will excel in (or even benefit from) courses in higher-order mathematics?

If we want more young people to become mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, then we need to find ways to awaken and nourish a passion for those subjects well before high school.


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