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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'School math' is boring: Students want 'real math'

"Math is important, but we’re being taught the wrong kind of math," say high school students in a YouthTruth survey. While 57 percent say everyone should learn math, students want to learn math that will prepare them for careers and financial success. In particular, concludes the report, "they view understanding taxes as a crucial aspect of adulthood and an integral part of comprehending the financial system, which they find frustratingly opaque."

In focus groups, many distinguished between "school math," needed for college, and "real math," needed for life. (My high school taught "Business Math" in the 1960's.)

Only 47 percent say they tend to work on interesting problems in math classes.

Most have a "growth mindset," the survey found. More than 70 percent say they can learn math through hard work. However, only 61 percent report that they keep trying when math gets hard.

Schools need to connect formal mathematics to students" career and real-world aspirations, Jen de Forest of YouthTruth told Education Week's Sarah Schwartz. "We're leaving all their motivation un-sparked."

Students' interest in managing their finances is "a proxy for wanting to understand power and how government works,” said de Forest. “There’s a connection between this desire for math literacy and a desire for citizenship.

Students' confidence is encouraging, said Susan May, the director of curriculum at the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. However, they need to see the "power of math" goes beyond taxes. “We have failed to portray to students the value around modeling problems, modeling phenomena in the world, making predictions, statistical analysis.”

"Some states, including Ohio, Oregon, and Utah, have tried to better align math course pathways to students’ college and career goals," writes Schwartz. Twenty-two states have signed onto the Dana Center's Launch Years Initiative which create broader options for advanced math.

Schwartz mentions California's controversial new math framework, which "suggests that math can be a vehicle for students to address important issues in their lives and communities, including social inequities."

Math and science professors and STEM professionals argued proposals would politicize the subject, she notes. A modified version was approved.

It sounds to me as though high school students are more interested in making and managing money than in analyzing the evils of "late-stage" capitalism.

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