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For decades, business leaders, educators and politicians have argued that U.S. students should study more advanced levels of math. Concerned about competition from countries like China and India, these advocates raise alarm about the shortage of Americans trained for jobs in engineering and other high-tech fields, arguing that in a knowledge economy even entry-level manufacturing jobs require greater levels of math competency. But is there merit to such claims?

Most prominent in the movement to raise standards is Achieve, Inc., which has called for all high school graduates to be proficient in math through at least Algebra II.

Achieve, a nonprofit organization, now counts 35 states in its American Diploma Project network. Participating states commit, among other things, to raise high school graduation requirements so that, at a minimum, all students take four years of English and math, including Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II (or an equivalent course), and data analysis or statistics.

Five years ago, only a few states mandated that students take Algebra II to graduate from high school. Until recently, most states simply required high school students to complete two or three years of math, but they didn’t require specific courses. As a result, many students never made it as far as Algebra II, although they satisfied state graduation requirements. Now, 20 states and Washington, D.C. require Algebra II for high school graduation.

Achieve argues that taking higher-level math courses in high school provides “a ticket to college access,” and also that advanced math is needed in careers ranging from health care to construction. “You see it in the basic 3:4:5 triangle,” says Kate Blosveren, a senior policy analyst for Achieve. “In math class, that’s the Pythagorean theorem. In construction, it’s the 3:4:5 triangle.”

Verizon is among the major companies that have advocated for improving U.S. math education. Network engineers are at the heart of Verizon’s business. “Without networks, we’re not much more than a marketing company,” says Alberto Canal, a spokesman for the corporation’s human resources division. But workers at lower levels also need to be adept at calculation, Canal says. For example, customer service representatives must be able to compute and compare calling plans quickly. “Customer service representatives need to be able to work out rate arrangements live, right then and there,” Canal says. “It’s in the context of problem-solving, which package works best for a customer. That’s a very real example of math skills.”

Not everyone agrees, however, that all graduates – regardless of career goals – need to master advanced math skills. Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, has long maintained that Algebra II is mostly useful as a marker for overall ability or educational achievement. In other words, an employee who has mastered Algebra II could be expected to master complex tasks on the job, even if such tasks are not math-related. “It seems that math ability, that is Algebra II and beyond, is being used as an initial screen, but most occupations really don’t require a sound knowledge of trig functions or the quadratic equation,” he says.

Others say the gateway remains basic algebra (a requirement for jobs in many trades), with Algebra II serving as an important stepping stone to calculus but not an end in itself. Joseph Rosenstein, a math professor at Rutgers University who has been critical of the Achieve standards, says that if a student isn’t going on to calculus, concepts such as complex numbers, rational exponents and cube roots have little value. “If you think about it,” Rosenstein says, “a class in statistics would be more important than Algebra II, in reading charts and determining probability.”

Given the increasingly prominent role that data and statistics play in Americans’ everyday lives, Rosenstein’s argument has merit.

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