No, I don’t think the job market should decide whether or not we teach math.

I understand where the confusion is coming from, but I don’t think school should just reflect job market needs.

I also don’t think that science is a more meaningful context for math.

I think pure math can be meaningful, and it’s easier to apply the math to new situations if it’s mastered in a more abstract, contextless form. (Of course, that abstraction needs to be meaningful to students.)

What I do believe is that high school math goes beyond the mathematics that is meaningful and broadly useful for everybody to learn. With the exception of something like exponential functions (which in the US appears in Algebra 1), I think we’re requiring too much. And there are two — well, three — reasons that you’d require more math than everybody needs.

First, because the content you’re requiring is awesome and deep and wonderful.

Second, because it keeps open career pathways for more students who would not elect to take the courses if they were optional.

While math is wonderful, I don’t think high school students are having awesome, deep, and wonderful experiences in their coursework. I don’t actually think this is intrinsic to the content of algebra — I’m a high school math teacher, after all! I think it’s more that we’re requiring too much learning to happen and all previous learning is prerequisite; if you’re behind by 9th Grade, it usually gets worse.

So let’s cut the math! Let’s change the curriculum! Yes, but then will students still have every opportunity open at the end of high school?

Really, the idea that you can keep every option open to every student the way we currently school our children is a myth. But it’s one that is widely held and makes it hard to make any change in the curriculum — learning about rearranging rational expressions is a universal right! You hear these things.

That was when I said to myself, OK, let’s keep those options open for kids. Instead of requiring math, let’s require the subjects that we are supposedly preparing them for careers in. Let them teach the math that you need for those subjects as units in those courses, or even as the first half of the year if that’s what’s best. True, science teachers these days don’t teach math very well…but they also aren’t charged with it. I’m sure they could figure it out as well as high school math teachers can.

Why would this be a better experience for students? Well, maybe we could pare down the curriculum while simultaneously keeping those pathways open. And while math is beautiful and wonderful, so is science. And while students certainly deserve the opportunity to experience the kind of thinking that makes mathematics unique…come on, they’ve already got 8 or 9 years of school to study pure math. At some point you have to stop requiring it!

All these speculative ideas are tough to judge because they’re all fantasy. Which fantasy is more realistic? I don’t know. Maybe it’s better to fantasize that we’ll replace Algebra 2 with Graph Theory, or that we’ll drastically cut the algebra requirements while beefing up support systems so that every student can success in the algebra sequence. Maybe we should require coding or statistics courses.

(Honestly, requiring statistics or coding as math classes might be a fantastic compromise in our current system, a little bit less fantastical. For me the key question is how dependent success in a course is on success in previous coursework. Students, especially in high school, would benefit from more courses that represent something like a fresh start. Otherwise the failures just compound.)

But, probably, none of this will happen, and the reason is because the real role that math is playing in high school isn’t about the importance of the subject as a humanity or its value on the job market — it’s a third reason: sorting students and signalling their academic potential to universities. And that should be a major concern for mathematicians and math educators. While I do love math and would love to share more of what I love with students, if cutting math meant I could lower the stakes for math students in high school in a significant way, I would do it with no hesitation.

Not that the plan I articulating in a few vague sentences is anything like a solution. Other people have other ideas. But I hope we can get on the same page about what the problems are.

The Mathematical Modelers’ Hippocratic Oath

The Financial Modelers’ Manifesto was a proposal for more responsibility in risk management and quantitative finance written by financial engineers Emanuel Derman and Paul Wilmott. The manifesto includes a Modelers’ Hippocratic Oath.

The Modelers’ Hippocratic Oath

I will remember that I didn’t make the world, and it doesn’t satisfy my equations.

Though I will use models boldly to estimate value, I will not be overly impressed by mathematics.

I will never sacrifice reality for elegance without explaining why I have done so.

Nor will I give the people who use my model false comfort about its accuracy. Instead, I will make explicit its assumptions and oversights.

I understand that my work may have enormous effects on society and the economy, many of them beyond my comprehension