Do Students Need Calculus Anymore? (Some mathematicians say the current model of high school math is broken.)

Mathematician Daniel Rockmore asks a provocative question at Salon: “Is it time to kill calculus?

Rockmore explains a case made by Freakonomics economist and provocateur Steven Levitt, who says he believes math pedagogy in general needs a big update, including an increased emphasis on statistics and data literacy broadly. Among his supporters he counts FiveThirtyEight‘s Nate Silver, whom Rockmore describes as a “statistics celebrity.”

You love numbers. So do we. Let’s nerd out over numbers together.

Americans act very protective of math curricula despite having low or even bottom rankings among peer nations in even basic math literacy. When Common Core was introduced, with math standards whose pace did not meet STEM standards for many universities, parents still complained that the instruction of basic arithmetic was too complicated. Common Core’s goals to have a unified standard conflicted with examples shared online of elaborate story problems.

But the arithmetic goals underpinning the Common Core program represent a similar idea to the one Levitt is putting forward now. What math are people really using, and how can we prepare them to do it better, faster, and with more confidence? With arithmetic, that means ideas like rapidly making change or doing other transactional or household math in your head. And with Levitt’s new committee for reforming math curricula, it means more focus on statistics over calculus.

How far did you get in math?

Nothing is wrong with calculus. Calculus rules! It’s foundational to almost everything in physics, college mathematics, engineering, and the rest of hard science and many social sciences. The area beneath curves, a critical basic building block of calculus, ends up interacting with statistics in forms like the bell curve of regular statistical distribution. In turn, statistics and probability have colored almost every mathematical discipline and chipped off several new hybrid areas of specialization.

One expert in Levitt’s project, Salon reports, has worked for years on math curriculum reform because of what she calls the “calculus funnel.” Children in many districts take placement tests as young as sixth grade that put them on one math “track” or another, and due to widely studied social factors in education that are perpetuated by everyone from teachers themselves to family members, boys still outperform girls on these tests, for example.

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