Monday, August 29, 2011

How to Fix Our Math Education

Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford think they know How to Fix Our Math Education (NYT, 8/24 Op Ed): "The truth is that different sets of math skills are useful for different careers, and our math education should be changed to reflect this fact." I think they miss half the point.

Here's the other half: jobs. Even with an unemployment rate of over 9%, there are plenty of jobs available. My clients are begging for talented candidates with strong math backgrounds. Enhancing math education with practical tools is fine--as far as it goes--but a rigorous math foundation through high school is vital for continued study in the quantitative sciences, and should be encouraged because this is where the jobs are.

Fixing math education must begin in elementary school. Inspiring, motivated primary teachers who also love math will foster that love in their students right from the start. There is a history of math phobia that gets passed among students (and teachers). At the high school level, many students take only the math required to graduate or get into their college of choice--treating it as something to get through that they will never use in "real" life.

These scare tactics steer students away from math, assume abstract thinking is irrelevant and perhaps most detrimentally, teach students to avoid anything that seems difficult. Our real world is filled with complicated problems--problems that will only be solved by those prepared to tackle the hard stuff, to persevere, and to work to understand the unknown.

Maybe the problem starts with how we teach our teachers and the minimal level of math mastery required of our early educators. For example, University of Illinois School of Education offers an undergraduate degree in preliminary education that requires only seven credit hours (of 125) in math education.

The current assumption is that basic math is boring and that you can always use a calculator. It's not enough to know how to calculate a mortgage or to buy or lease a car. If students don't have math facts down cold, they won't advance in math. It's interesting to note that our Japanese exchange student, a high school junior who excelled in math, had never been allowed to use a calculator in Japan.

According to Garfunkel and Mumford, "It is through real-life applications that mathematics emerged in the past, has flourished for centuries, and connects to our culture now."

Real life--life where even college graduates are having trouble finding jobs--requires us to prepare our students for the careers that will be available to them in the foreseeable future. In real life, nearly everyone who studies math or its related disciplines such as statistics, operations research, economics, engineering, and computer science will find jobs after college. This is not necessarily true of English majors.

We need to embrace math, to challenge our students to relish the ability to solve difficult problems. Requiring our primary teachers to pursue a strong education in math would boost their own confidence in teaching and inspiring young minds. Most students choose not to continue in math because they lack the foundation, passion, confidence, and interest. This is our failure. Instead of telling our children "you'll never need math", we should be telling them that this is where the jobs are.

Math is our future.