Reforming Math Education in the United States: A Case for Statistics

Math as a student

If your education was anything like my own standard public schooling, the sequence of math education went something like this: 8th-grade was Algebra 1 then you moved through a sequence of Algebra 2, Geometry, Pre-Calculus, and finishing with Calculus during your senior year of high school (note, if you were not on an honors track you probably bumped everything back a year and didn’t take Calculus). Math was my least favorite subject, but I had a strong enough hold on the concepts and plenty of support from my family that I struggled through Calculus with the plan to test out of freshman math courses in college so I would never have to deal with a logarithm, derivative, or trigonometric function ever again. It worked. For four years of undergraduate education, the only times I had to deal with numbers was in a single statistics course (taught entirely in Excel) which was a prerequisite for a degree in Psychology and a lab-methods course (statistics again, this time using SPSS). Four years later, I received a placement with Teach for America as an 8th-grade math teacher.

Math as a teacher

I was forced to reconnect with math. As a teacher, I learned to see math as a tool and a puzzle, but I recognized that the abstract concepts and high stakes in math classrooms engender “math anxiety” in most students. After spending several years with the same curriculum and the same testing break-down at the end of the year, I felt pressure to spend more time on algebraic concepts to prepare my students for the end-of-year test and high school so I would only spend a few days on statistical concepts or completely skip them if there wasn’t enough time. As a math teacher, it’s hard not to play the probabilities.

Aside from realizing the source of my students’ math anxiety, I also observed that almost all the algebra-based math that is beneficial in day-to-day life for many people gets taught in 8th or 9th-grade math classes. In my classroom, we talked about everything from interest rates and credit card debt to using systems of equations to compare cell phone plans. We used basic linear equations to figure out what was a living hourly wage for the area and depreciation rates to determine whether or not it is worth it to buy a brand new car. An article from The Atlantic tells us that less than 25% of Americans use any math more complicated than fractions at work, and many of those jobs are skilled blue-collar jobs such as mechanics and machinists. It is important to note that many of the jobs that do require higher mathematics are also on the higher end of the pay scale.

After listening to Dan Meyer’s TED Talk and seeing how much information we are inundated with during an election year, I have become more convinced than ever before that we are doing students a disservice by not preparing them with statistical literacy as they make their way through high school. At best, statistics is offered as an additional math class for students to put another AP course on their high school transcript, and the class is still entrenched in theoretical use and number-crunching. At worst, statistics is offered as alternative math class for students who “aren’t math people” and it focuses mostly on probability instead of statistical literacy.

Why Statistics?

Increasingly the world we live in is driven by and communicated through data and statistical analysis. It is important that our education system reflects that by preparing our students, not only for the jobs of the future, but to be literate citizens who understand the numbers, polls, and analyses which are presented in the media constantly. Big Data has become the driving force behind the operation and management of everything from professional baseball to airline arrival estimates.

The Potential of Statistics

School systems around the country are working to integrate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) into their curricula to beef up the rigor and relevance of their courses. Statistics has great potential to be the intersection of technology and mathematics. Many of the college courses with statistics focuses are being taught using programs, such as Excel or SPSS, or code languages, such as Python or R. As more schools are working to “flip the classroom,” there are a wealth of free resources which teachers can leverage to give students the freedom to learn coding and statistics independently and at a pace that is more suitable to their needs, such as Codecademy, Khan Academy, or auditing courses on websites like EdX. For students who require application and room for creativity, coding can be a great resource that allows them to find innovative ways of getting results and presenting them in interesting and eye-catching ways as infographics or interactive maps.

By pairing statistics with coding, not only are schools combining two parts of STEM education into their curriculum, they are also preparing students with a strong foundation in Computer Science as they enter college, which can be used in program or app development, data mining, geographical information sciences, or business management. For those who would prefer to enter the workforce after high school, they will finish with entry-level skills in data management, and they will be better equipped to use online learning platforms to increase their marketability. Beyond the application in college and careers, understanding the nuances and methodological importance of statistical studies will greatly increase students’ awareness of the world in which they live, whether it is recognizing that political poll numbers might be skewed or that four out of five dentists recommending a brand of toothpaste doesn’t matter if only five dentists were surveyed.

It’s All Important

We should not stop teaching the algebra-based math that leads to Calculus; that is not the argument I am making. Higher mathematics has its place in our education system, and we are going to need plenty of people who can use differential equations to model climate change, design circuits, and engineer infrastructure. Both higher-level mathematics and statistics develop and require problem-solving skills which are transferable to other disciplines and to life. What is important is that we recognize the need and application for both disciplines and offer students opportunities to grow in more ways that are relevant to their futures.


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