In a recent opinion piece in the LA Times, Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, and Steven D. Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, argue that today’s high school math curriculum is woefully outdated for the needs of the digital era. In their words, students are only taught algebra, geometry, etc. “because Eisenhower-era policymakers believed this curriculum would produce the best rocket scientists to work on projects during the Cold War.”

The authors go on to stress that times and technology have clearly evolved significantly since the Cold War days, and they believe it’s critical that math curriculums be reengineered to better prepare students for the challenges and expectations they will encounter in the workforce. Or, as they put it, “What we propose is…to put data and its analysis at the center of high school mathematics.”

It’s an interesting concept and a hypothesis that the professors put to the test. They conducted a survey of 900 “Freakonomics” podcast listeners and found that:

  • Less than 12 percent utilize any algebra, trigonometry, or calculus in their daily lives
  • Just 2 percent use integrals or derivatives
  • Yet, 66 percent use basic analytics software like Excel on a daily basis

By modernizing math curriculums to train students on Excel and similar programs, the authors submit, these individuals would be better prepared for success out of the gate and also “have more practical skills for navigating our newly data-rich world.” It’s clear that this is a polarizing viewpoint—the LA Times piece sparked numerous counterpoints and letters to the editor expressing opposing opinions.

Yet, no one disagrees that data analysis will become increasingly integral to all facets of our lives. As such, it follows that when the current high school demographic hits the workforce, they will be confronted with unprecedented opportunities to use data to drive change in truly meaningful ways. As Ike Kavas wrote in a recent Forbes article, “I believe our technological innovations are trending toward societal good—tools and services that make our communities safer, smarter and, yes, more efficient. [We are] poised…to create a world that uses data to improve medicine, infrastructure, government, and the environment.”

Changing the national mathematics program is not something that can happen overnight, but it’s an interesting space to keep an eye on—particularly for those of us who know the value of widespread data analysis.

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