In an op-ed piece in The New York Times about the state of math education in the U.S., Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford contend that “the best way for the United States to compete globally” and to catch up to other countries’ students “is to strive for universal quantitative literacy: teaching topics that make sense to all students and can be used by them throughout their lives.”
According to Garfunkel and Mumford, today’s math courses, which go in a sequence (loosely) from algebra to geometry to calculus, don’t always teach students how to apply the concepts they learn to real-life problems. In addition, the authors say that the problem with America’s math curriculum is that it focuses on teaching students a single established body of mathematical skills, when really it should be offering courses that reflect the different math skills that are necessary for different careers:
For instance, how often do most adults encounter a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation? Do they need to know what constitutes a "group of transformations" or a "complex number"? Of course professional mathematicians, physicists and engineers need to know all this, but most citizens would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed and how the statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood.
The authors also write that students might benefit more from a curriculum that swaps algebra, geometry, and calculus classes for courses on finance, data, and basic engineering, which they say would teach students abstract as well as useable skills for the future.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.