Higher math: Who needs it?

Stop requiring all students to learn advanced algebra, geometry and trigonometry, argues David Edwards, who teaches math at the University of Georgia.

It’s a myth that the economy needs everyone to master higher math, he argues in the Foundation for Economic Education blog.

Even “the vast majority of scientists, engineers and actuaries” use only Excel and eighth-grade math, defined as “arithmetic, and a little bit of algebra, statistics and programming,” writes Edwards.

When Accenture was recruiting math and computer science majors at UGA, Edwards invited them to speak to his Math for Computer Science class.

After they finished, I asked the consultants: So, what mathematics do you actually use? They sheepishly responded: None. So, I asked them: What computer science do you actually use? Again the answer was: None. They were only interested in math or computer science majors as a convenient filter!

“Higher mathematics is central to a serious higher education,” Edwards believes. However, this applies only a “minute fraction” of students:  He envisions a Harvard philosophy major.

The argument — popular in math departments — that math helps students “think clearly” is “self-serving nonsense,” Edwards writes. “In sports there is the concept of the specificity of skills: if you want to improve your racquetball game, don’t practice squash! I believe the same holds true for intellectual skills.”

What do you think? If students were competent in arithmetic, with a bit of algebra, statistics and programming — and Excel — would they be good enough?

IB adds career certificates

International Baccalaureate, known for challenging academic diplomas, will offer career certificates in subjects such as engineering, culinary arts, business and automotive technology.


Will we ever learn?

Will We Ever Learn? ask Robert Lerman of the Urban Institue and Arnold Packer of SCANS in Education Week. That is, will we ever learn to stop forcing a one-size-fits-all college-prep curriculum on all students.

Many high schools require Algebra 2, they write, but “Northeastern University sociologist Michael Handel has found that only 9 percent of people in the workforce ever use this knowledge, and that fewer than 20 percent of managerial, professional, or technical workers report using any Algebra 2 material.”

Part of the reason high schools fail so many kids is that educators can’t get free of the notion that all students—regardless of their career aspirations—need the same basic preparation. States are piling on academic courses, removing the arts, and downplaying career and technical education to make way for a double portion of math. Meanwhile, career-focused programs, such as Wisconsin’s youth apprenticeships and well-designed career academies, are engaging students and raising their post-high-school earnings, especially among hard-to-reach, at-risk male students.

Research shows what employers want:

Successful workers communicate effectively, orally and in writing, and have social and behavioral skills that make them responsible and good at teamwork. They are creative and techno-savvy, have a good command of fractions and basic statistics, and can apply relatively simple math to real-world problems such as those concerning financial or health literacy. Employers never mention polynomial factoring . . .

The proposed common core standards ignore career readiness in favor of college-prep, they write. “We need rigorous but basic academics, homing in on skills that will be used, and not short-shrifting the ‘soft skill’ behaviors that lead to success in college and careers.”

I’m not sure how schools could get rigorous about “soft skill” behaviors. But I see very little in most high schools to engage career-minded students.

‘Ready for work’ is just a slogan

While educators agree that students should be prepared for both college and the workplace, career skills often get short shrift, reports Education Week.

“Industry after industry is going after high-skilled labor[ers] and cannot find them,” said Robert T. Jones, who was an assistant U.S. secretary of labor in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and is now the president of Education and Workforce Policy, an Alexandria, Va.-based consulting company. Even in the current recession, he said, many skilled manufacturing and technician jobs ­­— such as for welders and electricians — go begging.

Most students now assume they’ll go on to college. But the C, D and F students (and some of the B students) will find they lack the skills to pass college courses or qualify for apprenticeships.