How Much Mathematics is Enough?

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

The National Council on Education & the Economy, the organization led by Marc Tucker, released a series of new reports on Tuesday called What Does it Really Mean to be College and Career Ready? The reports, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and focusing on mathematics and English, explore what is necessary to align secondary and postsecondary education in the United States.

A common theme in the deliberations of today’s event is the use, and perhaps misuse, of Algebra I and II as filters for college entrance and success. In fact, Marc Tucker declared that most students in middle and high school have no need for Algebra II. The reality is that our workers need to use ratios, statistics, and essentially basic algebra rather than the higher-level mathematics that they are forced to endure.

Is this true or is this rhetoric?

Back in 1996, I was hired by The College Board in a program called EQUITY 2000, a district-wide school reform program supported by $27 million in grants from The Ford Foundation, DeWitt-Wallace Foundation (now just the Wallace Foundation), The Kellogg Foundation, and several other organizations. The premise of EQUITY 2000 was based on a 1990 publication by Sol Pelavin called Changing the Odds: Factors Increasing Access to College. Pelavin most recently retired as president of the American Institute of Research (AIR). The report pointed to the importance of attaining high–level mathematics, specifically Algebra I and II, in determining college access and success.

EQUITY 2000 used this report to create this cutting-edge program that would change district policies and require Algebra I to be completed by the 8th grade, Algebra II by8 the 9th grade, and geometry by the 10th grade. By doing this, students would create critical thinking skills sooner and could then take advanced mathematics in preparation for college.

The problem was that Pelavin’s report was misdirected because it made incorrect assumptions based on the data. If one conducts a logistic regression of successful vs. unsuccessful college students, you will find that the higher level of mathematics is directly proportional with that success. For every additional rigorous course taken in high school, there is a statistically-significant jump on college attendance, persistence, graduation rates, GPA, and matriculation to graduate and professional studies.

But not because of the higher-level mathematics.

Rather, because these students were in schools with policies that pushed them through higher level mathematics. Because these students were more affluent, more white, more Asian, and attended schools or lived in micro-cultures that demanded more of them, academically, than other schools. Not because of mathematics.

If we were to take mathematics completely off the table (which I am not suggesting), we would find the same trends with English and other courses.

So, Marc Tucker is right. In the NCEE report, they conclude with these findings:

  • The mathematics needed is mostly middle school mathematics
  • Students command of the middle school mathematics concepts is weak
  • Don’t rush through middle school mathematics; master Algebra I by sophomore year
  • Algebra II not a prerequisite for success in community college or in most careers; high schools should abandon requirement that all high school students take it
  • Mathematics modeling, statistics and probability, complex measurement, schematics and geometric visualization needed in many community college programs but not now taught in most schools
  • Mathematics tested in community college falls far short of what is in students’ textbooks and sort of what they need in careers they have chosen.

In sum, we teach too much mathematics, sometimes many times, to middle and high school students; we teach it poorly with little depth and understanding; we have very little worldly application for what we teach; and we require too much mathematics in college for about three quarters of students who will never need another ounce of mathematics to lead a prosperous and fulfilled life and career. (please note: my major was mathematics; I ‘get’ math).

But we still do it. Why?

Because we always have. As Tucker said, we teach mathematics for the same reasons we taught Latin. Not to help students and youth in to the postsecondary system, but to keep them out. Mathematics is our filter for college readiness and access, let alone success. Just as I argue we use a bachelor’s degree to filter job applicants in today’s economy, we use mathematics as an unrealistic, perhaps unethical, practice of limiting college enrollment.

Case in point. My 19-year old son is currently a college junior. Mathematics has never been his thing. He passed the required mathematics courses in high school to gain access to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, one of my alma maters. But he can’t get by their Algebra course. And if he does not pass that course, he will not graduate. He can complete all other courses in his degree and collect over 120 credits. But they will not let him graduate if he does not complete this one, singular course.

My son is an English major. He is studying to be a journalist.

He doesn’t need one more, completely unrelated mathematics course.

There are literally tens of thousands of college students that have not graduate and/or will not graduate because someone somewhere has suggested they need certain courses that have nothing to do with their major. Most students choose a major because it is an area that they like; most students stay away from mathematics because they don’t like it. They’ve already been put through over a dozen mathematics courses in secondary school, and our colleges keep asking for more.

It doesn’t make sense.

I urge you to download the NCEE reports and judge for yourself. But this is a prime example of how outmoded, unresponsive, and perhaps unethical our system of higher education is in America. All of this with a layer of the most expensive college system in the world, most at the foot of taxpayers, parents, and students. All of this with the highest level of student debt ever recorded, for the first time eclipsing credit card debt in America.

Let’s ensure that students learn the mathematics they need at a high level in secondary school. Simultaneously, let us prepare college pathways for secondary students who are interested in the mathematics sciences, and let others off the hook (well, at least part of the hook; they still need math and critical thinking skills). They should have already learned enough mathematics well to use it in their future professions, as stated in the NCEE report. Yes, this sounds like tracking, but tracking doesn’t have to be bad if we provide safety nets and clear pathways to educational and career goals. One of my colleagues at AIR mentioned that he would rather ensure that all students are college prepared with a basic minimum of schools so their options are open. That’s fine, but we have to define what these options are, and AP calculus is simply not necessary for most students. I completed over 30 credit hours in college mathematics, including “number theory” (still don’t get that one…). And as a statistics guy, I don’t even use that stuff.

If necessary, then let’s allow students to take more courses in their major or reduce the number of credits necessary for college completion. Why are we stuck at 120 credit hours? If we take a closer look at our admissions standards, PSE course requirements, and middle and high school requirements, perhaps we can boost college access and success, with NO diminishment of quality.

So, what does that mean for the Common Core State Standards? Hmmmm. More of the same?

7 thoughts on “How Much Mathematics is Enough?

  1. Reblogged this on An Educated Child and commented:
    I wholeheartedly agree with the position that we must have a critical, realistic look at college and career readiness for the new millennium and strive to remove artificial barriers to gaining entry to higher education.

  2. I have heard the argument that it isn’t the math so much that provides the college success skills as the critical thinking skills that are developed and learning the ability to push through something difficult that you might not understand. If it wasn’t math, I would guess there would be a desire for another hurdle to help get students ready for college level work.

    1. I think your comment has merit. I think the challenge is that some students just do not have that level of cognition (math) compared to perhaps analyzing script or arguments (English). Some have neither, I am afraid. But there are other filters. Filters are ok if they are fair; I don’t think we are necessarily fair if someone just doesn’t “get” math, but are very bright, can analyze thoughts and comments, and have no interest in a math/science career.

  3. Groovy stuff.

    The general bias of the economic/political pundits seems to be that because the global economy has turned all “math and science” on us–that we should train “Johnny average student” into a scientist of some kind (any kind will do–the more esoteric the better) because he will need a “job,” the more scientific the better. This is a benefit to society, since now Johnny is a consumer-driven agent with money to spend, and benefits Johnny, for the same reasons.

    That’s great “except” for several big hurdles. One, the chances of Johnny average passing “AP calculus” to kick start his scientific career are practically nil. Two, even if Johnny manages a C in AP calculus, he’s hardly off to a doctorate in STEM which many scientific fields require in order to compete globally.

    So the “general bias” of the pundits simply won’t do. So now we look at options for Johnny out of STEM fields and into something realistic for society and Johnny both. It’s about time.

    The Sage of Wake Forest

  4. I have heard the argument that it isn’t the maths so much that have led to success in schools and colleges,but it is said “All is left good to an extent”, maths is really needed for advance look of things by students and to enable them increase in their reasoning capacities. Administrations should note that maths is important but to and extent in order to enable students attain their success and also to note that there are other ways by which students can be made to attain standards in the educational field yet to be discovered. Maths is not the only way, but because we have subjected our mind to the ways of maths we all think and make our students to think that is the only way to develop special skills to attain good or outstanding standards.

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