“I hate mathematics, and I would rather die.”
“It SUCKS, and I wouldn’t want to spend any more of my time looking at algebra and other crap.”‘
“I despise the way it is taught.”
These student quotations, contained in a 2018 report from Just Equations, cut to the core of the problem: The teaching and structure of high-school math courses present critical barriers to math learning, educational achievement and equity.
I’m not a math educator, but I work with math educators all the time. The vast majority want to see mathematics used to expand students’ horizons rather than to test and rank students, limiting their future opportunities. The Just Equations report highlights a better way to ensure that all students leave high school with the quantitative literacy they need for their future educational, career and life pursuits.
Moving forward means dealing with the major problem that these math educators face: the traditional algebra-to-calculus pathway. A precursor to the study of science and technology, this traditional route does not prepare students for the vast majority of academic fields and careers, which are more likely to require probability, data analysis, modeling of real-world problems and financial math. Add to that the fact that students, especially students of color, are routinely tracked into lower-quality math courses with inexperienced teachers and inadequate support for their success.
By the time students get to high school, this scenario leaves them ill-equipped for the traditional algebra-intensive pathway — exemplified by difficult math courses that feel irrelevant to most students’ lives and careers, but that are nevertheless required for admission to many colleges. But a growing chorus of voices from within the math community is crying foul. Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin bemoans “the human carnage that results from teaching mathematics in a way that works only for a minority of students.”
Making math learning more equitable, and ensuring that students no longer hate math, entails teaching mathematics that is not only rigorous but relevant. Until recently, the traditional high-school math sequence — comprised of two algebra courses and one geometry course leading to precalculus and calculus — was such a dominant indicator of academic success that more relevant alternatives had little chance of thriving.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has called for an end to tracking, asking high schools to stop placing students into “terminal mathematics pathways that are not mathematically meaningful and do not prepare them for any continued study of fundamental mathematics or effective participation in democratic society.”
Enter “Branching Out: Designing High School Math Pathways for Equity,” a 2019 Just Equations report by Phil Daro and Harold Asturias, who highlight the development of what they call “branch” pathways. These pathways are rigorous options for students who want to pursue fields such as public service, media, law or design.
Such branch pathways, still rare at the high-school level, are increasingly common in higher education, with the blessing of the mathematics establishment.
A few years ago, three leading mathematicians urged fellow math faculty to “reach out to colleagues in mathematics-intensive disciplines in order to heighten the relevance of their courses to the careers of their students. And we urge departments as a whole to investigate with an open mind new teaching methodologies and technologies, keeping in mind the need to retain and motivate students.”
Across the country, public college systems have begun diversifying their math pathway options beyond the traditional algebra-intensive pathway designed to prepare students for majors and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Carnegie Math Pathways and the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas have designed statistics pathways (for students in majors like psychology and the social sciences) as well as a quantitative reasoning pathway (for arts and humanities majors).
For the sake of equity, a similar approach needs to take off in high schools, note Daro and Asturias. Doing so would prevent potential STEM students from being filtered out of opportunities — as too often happens to women and students of color — while ensuring that irrelevant math hurdles don’t block other students from pursuing the careers that most interest them.
“Education systems must be able to respond as effectively to a future musician who is uninterested in traditional math courses as they would to a student who wants to be an engineer, but hasn’t had a chance to take advanced math courses,” they write. “To begin, we shift from thinking of pathways as tracks based on levels of student ability to thinking of pathways in terms of the valuable postsecondary opportunities they offer.”
Escondido Union High School District in Southern California has pursued such an approach. Freshmen and sophomores take the same courses, but juniors choose between a statistics-oriented math pathway or a math pathway that leads to calculus, followed by relevant senior-year options.
Oregon offers three choices to high-school juniors: a class that merges algebra 2 and pre-calculus, a class that covers statistics and mathematical modeling, and an applied math course that prepares students for technical careers (but doesn’t necessarily help gain admission to a four-year college). Seniors can choose from various elective math courses or take a dual-credit college math course.
Both models have been highlighted by the NCTM to illustrate its recommendation to “ensure that each and every student has the mathematical experience necessary for his or her future personal and professional success.”
A perfect example of a branch course that’s arguably more relevant in today’s workforce than traditional math pathway courses is Introduction to Data Science, which was piloted a few years ago in the Los Angeles Unified School District by UCLA researchers, with support from the National Science Foundation. It is now serving more than 3,000 students in 45 Southern California schools, and demand is growing.
And that’s as it should be.
This story about math pathways in high school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.
Pamela Burdman, an expert on college access, readiness and success, is the founder of Just Equations, a project that is re-conceptualizing the role of math in ensuring equitable opportunities for students.