Does America’s Math Curriculum Add Up?
Most high school math classes are still preparing students for the Sputnik era. Guest columnist Steven Levitt makes the case for an overhaul — and a new focus on data fluency.
Steve Levitt, my co-author on the Freakonomics books and an economist at the University of Chicago, has spent a lot of time helping his four teenagers with their math homework in recent years. The experience has left Levitt with questions he can’t find good answers to. Questions like: Does anyone actually use this kind of math in their daily life? Is there any benefit, at all, to learning this stuff? And are there not more useful things they could be learning?
So, Levitt wrote up a grant proposal and convinced Schmidt Futures to give him funding to study those questions. In this guest column, Levitt tells us about his mission to modernize high school math.
I use mathematical thinking, statistics, and data analysis constantly, whether I’m writing economics papers, trying to get better at golf, or hoping to pick winners at the race track. But the math tools I actually use, and the math tools I see people around me actually using, seem to have nothing to do with what my kids are learning in school.
Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University and an expert on reforming math education, says that one of the biggest problems with the math curriculum in the U.S. today is that it’s a relic of a bygone era.
“It was a long time ago that somebody in the U.S. decided to teach what I think of as the geometry sandwich — a course of algebra for a whole year, followed by a course of geometry for a whole year, and then another course of algebra,” Boaler says. “I don’t know any other country that does that, and it’s part of the problem.”
In the United States, it was elite universities that first spurred the teaching of higher-level math. In 1820, for instance, Harvard began requiring knowledge of algebra to gain admittance. As a result, secondary schools started teaching algebra. Fifty years later, Harvard added geometry to its requirements, and the secondary schools followed suit.