A Math Myth?


I just finished reading The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions by Andrew Hacker. I found the book to be so provocative and interesting that it merits the first ever book review on this blog.

The central thesis of the book is that in the US, we (meaning policy makers, educators, parents, and employers) have become obsessed with raising rigor and academic standards in math. This obsession has reached a point where we are convinced that our national security, international business competitiveness, and hegemony as an economic power rides on improving the math skills of all our high school and college graduates.

Hacker questions this national fixation. First, raising math standards has some serious costs. Not only has it caused significant disruption within schools and among educators and parents (ask any educator about the upheaval the Common Core has caused), but it has also cost significant money. But, most importantly, Hacker makes a strong case that raising of math standards has ensured that many students will be left behind and unprepared for the future.

Currently, about one in four high school students does not complete high school. Once enrolled in college, only a bit more than half of enrollees will graduate. While there are many reasons for these failures, Hacker points out that the chief ACADEMIC reason is math.

I think everyone can think of someone who struggled mightily in math. I personally took Calculus in high school and two further courses in college. I have often wondered why. It seemed to be more of a rite of passage than an academic pursuit with any realistic end in mind for me. It was certainly painful.

Math has humbled many a bright young person. I have a niece who was an outstanding high school student (an honors student, took multiple AP courses, etc.). She went to a reputable four-year college. In her first year at college, she failed a required math course in Calculus. This remains the only course she had gotten below a B in during her entire academic life. Her college-mandated math experience made her feel like a failure and reconsider whether she belonged in college. Fortunately for her she had good supports in place and succeeded in her second go round at the course. Many others are not so lucky.

And to what end? My niece has ended up in a quantitative field and is succeeding nicely. Yet, I doubt she has ever had to calculate the area under a curve, run a derivative, or understand a differential equation.

The reality is very few people do. Hacker, using Bureau of Labor Statistics data, estimates that about 5% of the US workforce currently uses math beyond basic arithmetic in their jobs. This means that only about 1 in 20 of our students will need to know basic algebra or beyond in their employment. 95% will do just fine with the math that most people master by the end of 8th grade.

And, despite the focus on STEM education, Hacker uses BLS data to show that the number of engineering jobs in the US is projected to grow at a slower rate than the economy as a whole. In addition, despite claims by policy makers that there is a dearth of qualified engineers, real wages for engineers have been falling and not rising, implying that supply is exceeding demand.

Yet, our high school standards and college entry standards require a mastery of not just algebra, but also geometry and trigonometry.

Most two-year colleges have a math test that all incoming students must pass – regardless of the program of study they intend to follow. As anyone who has worked with community colleges can attest to, remediation of math skills for incoming students is a major issue two-year institutions face. Hacker questions this. Why, for example, should a student intending to study cosmetology need to master algebra? When is the last time your haircutter needed to understand how to factor a polynomial?

The problem lies in what the requirement that all students master advanced math skills does to people’s lives unnecessarily. Many aspiring cosmetologists won’t pass this test and won’t end up enrolling in the program and will have to find new careers because they cannot get licensed. What interest does this serve?

Market research is a quantitative field. Perhaps not as much as engineering and sciences, but our field is focused on numbers and statistics and making sense of them. However, in about 30 years of working with researchers and hiring them, I can tell you that I have not once encountered a single researcher who doesn’t have the technical math background necessary to succeed. In fact, I’d say that most of the researchers I’ve known have mastered the math necessary for our field by the time they entered high school.

However, I have encountered many researchers who do not have the interpretive skills needed to draw insights from the data sets we gather. And, I’d say that MOST of the researchers I have encountered cannot write well and cannot communicate findings effectively to their clients.

Hacker calls these skills “numeracy” and advocates strongly for them. Numeracy skills are what the vast majority of our graduates truly need to master.  These are practical numerical skills, beyond the life skills that we are often concerned about (e.g. understanding the impact of debt, how compound interest works, how to establish a family budget).  Numeracy (which requires basic arithmetic skills) is making sense of the world by using numbers, and being able to critically understand the increasing amount of numerical data that we are exposed to.

Again, I have worked with researchers who have advanced skills in Calculus and multivariate statistical methods, yet have few skills in numeracy. Can you look at some basic cross-tabs and tell a story? Can you be presented with a marketing situation and think of how we can use research to gather data to make a decision more informed? These skills, rather than advanced mathematical or statistical skills, are what are truly valued in our field. If you are in our field for long, you’ll noticed that the true stars of the field (and the people being paid the most) are rarely the math and statistical jedis – they tend to be the people who have mastered both numeracy and communication.

This isn’t the first time our country has become obsessed with STEM achievement. I can think of three phases in the past century where we’ve become similarly single-minded about education. The first was the launch of Sputnik in 1957.This caused a near panic in the US that we were falling behind the Soviets and our educational system changed significantly as a result. The second was the release of the Coleman Report in 1966.This report criticized the way schools are funded and, based on a massive study, concluded that spending additional money on education did not necessarily create greater achievement. It once again produced a near-panic that our schools were not keeping up, and many educational reforms were made. The third “shock” came in the form of A Nation at Risk, which was published during the Gen X era in 1983. This governmental report basically stated that our nation’s schools were failing. Panicked policy makers responded with reforms, perhaps the most important being that the federal government started taking on an activist role in education. We now have the “Common Core Era” – which, if you take a long view, can be seen as history repeating itself.

Throughout all of these shocks, the American economy thrived. While other economies have become more competitive, for some reason we have come to believe that if we can just get more graduates that understand differential equations, we’ll somehow be able to embark on a second American century.

Many of the criticisms Hacker levies towards math have parallels in other subjects. Yes, I am in a highly quantitative field and I haven’t had to know what a quadratic equation is since I was 16 years old. But, I also haven’t had to conjugate French verbs, analyze Shakespearean sonnets, write poetry, or know what Shay’s Rebellion was all about. We study many things that don’t end up being directly applicable to our careers or day-to-day lives. That is part of becoming a well-rounded person and an intelligent citizen. There is nothing wrong with learning for the sake of learning.

However, there are differences in math. Failure to progress sufficiently in math prevents movement forward in our academic system – and prevents pursuit of formal education in fields that don’t require these skills. We don’t stop people from becoming welders, hair-cutters, or auto mechanics because they can’t grasp the nuances of literature, speak a foreign language, or have knowledge of US History. But, if they don’t know algebra, we don’t let them enroll in these programs.

This is in no way a criticism of the need to encourage capable students from studying advanced math. As we can all attest to whenever we drive over a bridge, drive a car, use social media, or receive medical treatment, having incredible engineers is essential to the quality of our life. We should all want the 5% of the workforce that needs advanced math skills to be as well trained as possible.Our future world depends on them. Fortunately, the academic world is set up for them and rewards them.

But, we do have to think of alternative educational paths for the significant number of young people who will, at some point, find math to be a stumbling block to their future.

I highly recommend reading this book. Even if you do not agree with its premise or conclusions, it is a good example of how we need to think critically about our public policy declarations and the unintended consequences they can cause.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the entire book, Hacker wrote an editorial for the NY Times that eventually spawned the book. It is linked below.

Is Algebra Necessary?


1 Response to “A Math Myth?”

  1. 1 Suzanne Martin September 12, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    Aera is already showing a decline of interest in stem and steam.

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