Why Our Mathematics Education Is Failing Us

Mathematics has been a pillar of knowledge since the beginnings of humanity’s recorded history. The most intelligent of our species have used this language of numbers to solve our most complex problems. Yet for many students today, math represents a problem rather than a means to solve them. Our mathematics education has failed to adjust to the realities of the 21st century. Tradition dictates that the pinnacle of mathematics education be algebra and calculus, those stalwarts of high school and college academia. Instead, we must tailor our teaching to the actualities of the modern world, a place where statistics and data reign supreme. Proponents of our current system argue algebra and calculus should be the focus of mathematics education because students develop problem-solving abilities and learn information necessary for all further study of math and science. Most crucially, algebra and calculus are required for many professional fields including physics, technological science, and engineering. Despite these claims, all American schools should change to a mathematics educational system focused on statistics, financial planning, and data analysis because these subjects engage students with relevant topics and drastically improve graduation rates. This revised curriculum prepares individuals for life after school, as newly applied math skills will greatly improve their day-to-day lives.

In today’s schools, all mathematics classes build towards algebra and calculus. These behemoths of American education require hard work and raw computational skill. The powers that be have decided all young people must understand vectorial angles and binomial function if they are to complete their formal education and enter working society. This reasoning coheres with those who wish to enter science, technology, or engineering fields. The Department of Education reports that 16% of high school seniors are interested in pursuing STEM careers. Traditional math is crucial for this minority, however, if you were to ask the American student body, the majority would agree that topics learned in their current math courses do not coincide with their future. In a poll conducted throughout my high school’s Middle and Upper Schools, 91% of students said they would rather learn about statistics, data analysis, and finance as it would be more beneficial for their future than algebra and calculus. Traditional math courses force irrelevant topics onto students. Instead of representing legitimate educational material, these subjects are being used as a mark of intelligence or a badge to impress college admissions officers. Schools divide students into AP and non-AP classes. These divisions are portrayed as simple and meaningless, however the obvious truth lies beneath the surface. Students in the non-advanced tracks are told at age 15 they lack exemplary math talent, yet are required to take continued courses on material they will likely not use in life after school. Classes should not be divided based upon middle school math skills, but rather by level of interest. Then, all classrooms will be filled with motivated students invested in the topic at hand. Those who wish to pursue math or eventually enter a STEM field can choose to continue with algebra and calculus. However, the vast majority have much more invested in applied mathematics. Learning about data analytics, financial investing, and usage of statistics would spur student’s interest in their coursework. Statistics and probability hold relevancy and combine well with other subjects. Teaching applied mathematics would allow for cross-subject learning, where students use skills learned in one class to understand and solve the problems of another. Mathematics courses need revitalization as this subject more than any other prevents students from graduating high school. The University of California did a study of the state’s public school system and found that 85% of high school dropouts failed to pass algebra, a graduation requirement. Further research indicates that in Los Angeles County, more students drop out because of algebra than any other subject. The tyranny of algebra and calculus does not end after high school. Every college which values its reputation requires a certain level of mathematics education, regardless of the intended major of the student. This cult of calculus ruins the future education of so many potential college graduates. A report by Complete College America suggested that math requirements are the primary obstacle in preventing college graduation. Roughly 24% of community college attendees are forced to enter remedial math courses. Of those remedial enrollers, only 22% would go on to complete college-level courses. The City University of New York found that 57% of its students had failed to pass the mandated algebra course. Millions of Americans have had their education abbreviated by the continued emphasis of a subject which holds no relevancy or application to their daily lives.

Institutions across our nation should ultimately strive to prepare children for life after school. Statistics, financial planning, and data analysis provide our future generations with the tools to succeed both in the workplace and in everyday life. Classroom algebra skills rarely correspond to workplace success. A comprehensive study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that only 5% of entry-level workers needed to be proficient in algebra or above. Yet, what percentage of Americans need to know how to do their taxes? Financial planning would teach everyone how to be financially stable. Data analysis and statistics would display the power of applied math, teaching students how to manipulate and understand the wealth of numbers around us. Graphs and percentages may as well be another language if one lacks the skills necessary to decode and process statistical information. If we are to make courses mandatory for all, then these courses must hold relevance for every student. However, in a revamped mathematics system, the traditional subjects would not become extinct. Algebra and calculus will become optional classes, attracting those who truly adore abstract math and plan on utilizing it in their daily lives and in the workplace. Mathematics keeps this world running smoothly and is responsible for some of humanity’s greatest achievements. Without math, civilization as we know it would collapse. However, the average American plays no role in this complex structure composed of top level STEM professionals. Instead, the average American needs to know how a 401k works, how to understand a bar graph, how to structure a housing mortgage. The average American needs to know how to fill out an IRS form. The average American needs to know how to invest wisely so that at the age of 67, retirement is a feasible option. The average American does not need to know the derivative of arc tangent x equals 1 over 1 + x².

In the 21st century, numbers dominate. Statistics can be found everywhere and knowledge of their uses and application is necessary to understanding modern society. The real world demands a different kind of math than the one our schools have taught us. Changing to a system focused on statistics, financial planning, and data analysis would lead to a more fiscally intelligent and numerically inclined population. Revision of our mathematics system would be no small task. All educational institutions across the country would have to coordinate if this overhaul were to be successful. However, some schools have already recognized the advantages of applied math. The public schools of Texas and Nashville County, Tennessee no longer require algebra, and instead offer applied mathematics courses meant to better prepare students for adult life. In this Information Age, numbers will continue to infiltrate our daily lives. Algebra and calculus wreck a terrible toll on so many high school and college students, whereas statistics, financial planning, and data analysis provide valuable skills which benefit everyone. Mathematics should not prevent further learning, instead it should inspire young people to understand the world around them. Math should assist everyone on a daily basis; our courses must teach to the realities of life so all can succeed. Revitalizing math classrooms across these United States would better the future of so many Americans and our nation as a whole.

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