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Four Years of Mathematics?

In the March 11, 2006, issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, David Horsey asked this "Burning Question": Do four years of math make sense? His rationale was as follows:

One piece of legislation that did not survive this year's session was a bill mandating four years of advanced math for every high school student in the state. To me, it just didn't add up.

The folks pushing this bill alluded to test scores that show American students lagging behind European and Japanese youngsters in math skills. But, as I learned in a statistics course in graduate school, numbers can mislead. One reason American kids don't look so good when compared with students in other countries is that our test results include all students while the scores in other countries leave out large numbers of kids who, early on, are shuffled into alternative learning tracks.

Fans of the bill also argued that all the jobs worth having require lots of math. I'm tempted to point out I've got one of the best jobs in town and all the math I've ever needed I learned by 7th grade, but, of course, my job is unique. Nevertheless, I can easily name plenty of careers in which math is only a peripheral skill.

I'm not saying math is unimportant. It is very important, but it is not more important than all other academic disciplines. And it is not equally important to all students and all people in all jobs. Yes, we need a cadre of top scientists and engineers, but we do not need everyone to be schooled as if they are going to be scientists and engineers.

Or do we? Some would argue that the rigor of advanced math is good mental exercise for everyone. I suppose so. However, I could make the same argument for learning a musical instrument. Would any legislators care to sponsor a bill requiring that every student spend four years playing in a school orchestra?

I didn't think so. The biggest hazard in legislating a math requirement without thinking it through is that, in a limited school day, an overemphasis on math will crowd out other fields of knowledge -- social studies, for instance (and, Lord knows, we could use some wiser citizens and, apparently, smarter legislators).

My daughter took plenty of math in high school and did well at it. But if she had been required to take a full four years, she might have missed the foreign language and philosophy courses that were truly life changing. Unless all we want is a generation of unquestioning worker bees, it would be crazy to limit our children's learning opportunities.

What was most interesting was the volume and quality of responses (most of them positive) generated by his column. Rather than reprint the responses here, I refer you to the following links:
  • Horsey's summary of the initial responses
  • Set 1 of the reader responses
  • Set 2 of the reader responses
  • Set 3 of the reader responses
As mathematics teachers, we need to reflect on the question itself...as well as the insights revealed in these reader's responses.