Data Analysis vs Algebra 2
Is it time for a revolution in the U.S. high school math curriculum?
After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, math education to perform complex manual calculations became central to U.S. national security and space exploration. Katherine Johnson made math history at NASA when she correctly calculated the flight trajectories for Alan Shepard’s 1961 space orbit and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. She used pencil, paper, and a slide rule to do that. Then, the modern age of computers arrived and changed everything about how we teach math. Or did it?
Jo Boaler, professor of math education at Stanford University and Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economics professor and co-author of Freakonomics, tell more of the story in this L.A. Times Op-Ed titled Modern high school math should be about data science, not Algebra 2. “Our high school students are still taught algebra, geometry, a second year of algebra, and calculus because Eisenhower-era policymakers believed this curriculum would produce the best rocket scientists to work on projects during the Cold War.”
Steven Levitt believes that what modern students need most from math education is data fluency. Jo Boaler has devoted her academic career to developing new ways to teach math that generate flexible creative thinking. Together, they want a revolution to place data analysis at the center of secondary math education.
“Every high school student should graduate with an understanding of data, spreadsheets, and the difference between correlation and causality,” they state. And, data-based coursework instills “many of the same critical-thinking skills they are learning today through algebraic proofs,” while providing practical skills to navigate “our newly data-rich world.”
In this data-literacy site that Jo Boaler helped develop, she says data literacy “has become an essential life skill. Everywhere we turn, data is telling and weaving stories about our world.” But the basic math curriculum still taught in our high schools is “woefully under-preparing our students.”
Where does U.S. high school math education stand in the wider world? The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, measures how different nations are preparing students mathematically. In PISA’s most recent test, administered in 70 countries, the U.S placed 39th in math. This framework guides PISA assessments. It designates basic data literacy as essential to solving real-world 21st century problems in many contexts. And adds, “In science, technology, and everyday life, uncertainty is a given…probability, statistics, and techniques of data representation deal with this.”
A data analysis-based curriculum has long been modeled in the UK and Canada, with good results. The Royal Statistical Society in the UK talks here about their journey in data analysis education.
Over the past 50 years, statistics education for children ages 5 to 16 has become central to math education in the UK. They’ve believed since the late 60’s that data collection and interpretation could teach critical thinking to resolve many real-life problems. “Primary school children can learn and enjoy elementary probability and statistics,” they even concluded. To the British, teaching data interpretation and statistics was common sense. Canada ranked in the top ten on the PISA test, with a math curriculum similar to the UK’s.
Schools in the U.S are adopting these ideas, with the Los Angeles Unified School District leading the way in updating math education. In 2010, UCLA received a National Science Foundation grant in partnership with LAUSD to design an Introduction to Data Science and statistical thinking class. LAUSD piloted the course in the 2014-2015 school year, with approval for students to substitute it for Algebra 2.
Jo Boaler and Steven D. Levitt hope to see math education modernized in this way at a national level. They look ahead to educators, policymakers, high school counselors, parents and students all coming together to advocate for a major 21st century evolution in math.
Read this article for a fascinating conversation with Steven D. Levitt and Jo Boaler about the changes they want to see, as well as some history on how the standard U.S. high school math curriculum came to be.