Why “Rigorous” Math Mandates are a Failure

Think about the math instruction you received in school, especially at the secondary level. If you had a typical experience, you probably studied things like algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. And, if you’re like most people, you don’t use the vast majority of that type of math very often at all.

Everyday math involving things like real-world data analysis and statistics (e.g. “Does this study really prove what it asserts?”), probability, interest rates, and personal finance usually receive very little focus in school — sometimes none at all, or perhaps just a brief mention in a separate (and sometimes optional) “life skills” class.

This should be reversed. The normal math track in high school should devote extensive time to statistics, probability, personal finance, and real-world math applications. Classes like trigonometry and calculus should be electives meant for students who plan to use those forms of math in their careers.

Andrew Hacker wrote a famous New York Times article back in 2012 arguing that algebra and advanced math should not be required of all students. In that article, he wrote:

“A definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above.”

He went on to support the importance of a focus on statistics in our math classrooms instead:

“Being able to detect and identify ideology at work behind the numbers is of obvious use. Ours is fast becoming a statistical age, which raises the bar for informed citizenship. What is needed is not textbook formulas but greater understanding of where various numbers come from, and what they actually convey.”

(If you’d like to dig deeper into this, a 10-minute interview with Mr. Hacker from two days ago, where he expounds on this view, can be found here.)

This blog, The Data-Driven Life, aims to fill this gap — showing people real-world math and data applications they can use to their benefit in everyday life. But we would all be better off if everyone came out of school already having been taught the types of math they need to thrive as informed citizens (and savvy shoppers) in their daily lives.