The Daily Illini

Reform needed in mathematical education

By Minju Park

A recent article published by Business Insider explains the argument for removing core math courses such as algebra II and calculus, in order to replace them with more “practical” and “useful” courses such as statistics.

The basis of this argument is outlined in Andrew Hacker’s book, “The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions.” Hacker describes his main points: How very few fields require math in their work, how math is the driving force for high school and college dropouts and how the way math is being taught in K-12 education is too abstract, not allowing students to understand how the information connects to real life situations.

While I can appreciate the argument that math isn’t being taught properly to allow students to understand the curriculum, I don’t think the proper response is to cut out core classes such as algebra and calculus. Instead, the proper response should be to reform the amount of funding given to K-12 education, especially in low-income areas, in order to increase the quality of math education that students receive.

Though it sometimes appears math that is only required in certain fields such as engineering or science, math is a skill that is used whether your work is a STEM-related field or not. It’s used in the business field to calculate taxes, invest in stocks or to create a model of the highest profitability in a business. For liberal arts fields, math is still used in everyday life, from paying rent to calculating your insurance deductible.

Not only this, but math cultivates important problem-solving techniques and cognitive skills. According to Vanderbilt University’s College of Arts and Science, “By studying math you develop the habit of critical thinking: testing your conclusions … to make sure they’re based on adequate data and accurate reasoning.”

Math cultivates vital skills that are specific to the subject. It’s important to have a strong basis in these abilities because they’re “highly valued by employers as well as graduate and professional schools.”

In addition, math is a subject that requires more simplistic base skills to be established before continuing onto higher-level courses.

Jean Crowder, director of the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement Program at Sacramento State University and the University of California at Davis asked school counselors about the order of how high school students should take their math classes.

One anonymous responder, a representative of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools stated, “Math is one of those “build upon” courses that should not only increase difficulty and higher-order thinking, but also rigor. If our system changed the order, I think our dropout rate would go north of 30 percent.”

Having students jump right to statistics, which is traditionally taught around the 11th or 12th grade, before securing the base knowledge from algebra will cause difficulty in understanding concepts.

Other points that Hacker brings up to support his argument for eliminating algebra include how math professors “simply don’t care very much about the typical undergraduate,” which doesn’t inspire students to continue with their math education.

Also, Hacker mentions how math appears to drive dropouts at high school and collegiate levels. If this is the case, in which professors are simply not teaching the material effectively, then the solution points to reforming the teaching training system, rather than eradicating math courses completely.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory supports this idea of reforming math education by teaching math more in a conceptual matter, rather than only encouraging robotic memorization of formulas.

A publication by the laboratory states, “(By) focusing on instructional language and a deep understanding of mathematical concepts, educators can help their students develop the math skills necessary for progress and innovation in STEM fields.”

Math can be changed in order to encourage students to understand how the information learned during class is connectable to real life situations. This type of teaching could stimulate better understanding of concepts, and decrease math-related dropouts.

However, this change in teacher training can only begin with more funding towards K-12 and college education.

Ineffective teachers are processed as a result of the oppressive education system, and without change they will pass on these same values to the students, causing the cycle to repeat over and over again.

There must be reform in the way educators teach mathematical concepts to students, but the solution to such a problem is not to eradicate certain math classes completely, but to change the system from its roots.

Minju is a freshman in LAS.

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