Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic
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Mongolian girls work on a math problem in school. The ever-increasing role of technology in the modern workplace has led to a debate in the United States about the way math is taught. 

Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic

Let’s Fix Math Education By Redefining Math

How the subject is taught is more important than what is taught.

Our current cultural moment is defined by two trends that are too often—and wrongly—considered separately. First, we’re moving toward an economy based on technology, math, and science. Second, more people are aware of the deep social justice problems in America.

As we become a more data-driven society, we need to consider education reforms that will address both.

In his new book The Math Myth, Andrew Hacker—a longtime political scientist at Queens College in New York and a professor of numeracy courses—looks at how a new approach to teaching math could help the world. He questions the benefit of advanced math, such as trigonometry and calculus, and says he’s “waiting to be shown that agility with polynomials produces sharper insights on other topics.” Hacker doesn’t deny the virtues of differential equations for budding engineers, but he argues that the way we teach math to millions of other students is deeply flawed and morally misguided. It alienates and fails many, contributes to the dropout rate in high school, blocks even a community college degree, especially for the socioeconomically disadvantaged (a “harsh and senseless hurdle”), and in turn ensures a less equal society. Given how dull most students find math, he’d much rather generate enthusiasm for numbers by focusing on complex real-world problems. He writes that students need to “read, speak, and think numerically,” particularly using public data, from IRS tax figures to census numbers to household spending trends.

Hacker’s argument strikes a defiantly awkward note at a time when the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, math—reign supreme (his subtitle is And Other STEM Delusions). From the White House to Silicon Valley, there have been urgent calls for a more quantitatively informed workforce for the new economy. Some state policymakers have even considered tying university funding to STEM disciplines.

Not since Sputnik has math seemed so political. It’s also widely misunderstood.

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Many education reformers argue that math education doesn't adequately excite students, and can hold some back academically. 

Given the stakes, perhaps now is the time to acknowledge that the term “math” is being rounded too loosely. Little has been said about how the canonical math sequence—algebra through calculus—fits society’s needs now, and where the jobs of today and tomorrow fit in that spectrum. We know that computer coding and data science are good career bets, but you can’t just say those are “math jobs.” Programmers will get more use from discrete and finite mathematics and linear algebra than they will from calculus. For data science, statistics and mathematical modeling are crucial. Meanwhile, technological advances are making other fields more reliant on concepts that typically fall under “math.” In my field, journalism, data reporting requires straightforward arithmetical reasoning, a bit of statistics, and occasionally knowledge of data access and cleaning. Many of my journalism students at Northeastern University say the race to excel at calculus in high school narrows their vision. It’s not until college that they come back to the quantitative reasoning skills they need for their jobs.

A lot of math teachers would agree with Hacker that how the subject is taught is more important than what is taught—that a culture of exploration and inquiry is more important than mindlessly solving equations. But we can’t abandon advanced math entirely and ignore the students who excel at it and go on to work in fields that require it. Giving students more valuable and engaging options is the real solution.

Nicholas Wasserman, an assistant professor of mathematics education at Teachers College, Columbia University, says there should be “a much larger variety of different kinds of mathematics courses” offered in high school. “Calculus isn’t the pinnacle for everybody,” he says. Still, there’s no good reason to throw out much of algebra, a discipline that is, fundamentally, the “study of how quantities vary.”

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The space race politicized math education, as the United States rushed to build a program to explore space. 

Hacker doesn’t focus on the problems in our weak early education system, nor does he consider modest reforms based on successful international models.

Recent research underscores the strong correlation between math knowledge in the early grades and later achievement. America’s vast problems with inequality mean that many young learners fall behind long before they ever “solve for X.”

The secret of countries such as high-performing Finland may be quality primary school teachers, who often have deep math training, according to Pasi Sahlberg, a former math teacher who has chronicled the Finnish success story and is now a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Finland avoids constant testing and mountains of homework. And advanced math is woven more strategically, and smartly, into the curriculum in the lower grades.

As for jettisoning advanced algebra and calculus, Sahlberg says he’s cautious: “I would try to keep those things in the high school math program somehow, but not necessarily in the same separate, distinct way as they used to be.”

But whether anyone will agree on the solution, Hacker’s call for reform should prompt us to better define the toolkit we want students to have as they prepare for work in the STEM era.

John Wihbey is an assistant professor of journalism and new media at Northeastern University.