Much of our life today is defined by data. Think about it, our everyday is constantly data tracked from shopping to exercise and virus spread to climate change impact. That data focus has raised a question with many educators, as they wonder how we can better prepare up and coming STEM students to make sense of all this data in an equitable way. In other words, should our present K-12 math curriculum that includes algebra, geometry, and calculus introduce equitable data science to the mix? A lot of academia now seems to say the answer is no. The most powerful forces in education are coming together to keep kids from learning advanced math.
Last year, a group of 50 data scientists, teachers, mathematicians, and education policy leaders got together to discuss this exact topic. Stanford Graduate School of Education professor Jo Boaler led the event with the intent of answering if calculus should continue on as one of the “gatekeepers” of higher learning.
“The world has changed dramatically in recent years, but our mathematics curriculum has stayed the same,” said Boaler via Stanford Graduate School of Education. “We urgently need to teach kids what they’re actually going to use in their lives and their work. So, we brought together the people we think can make this movement happen.”
One of those brought in was Steven Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, who collaborated with Boaler on a Los Angeles Times op-ed talking about putting data science on the curriculum of high school mathematics. Levitt’s interest in the subject was born when he began to see how his experience with math as a child was different from what his children were now going through.
“They were taught by teachers that these sets of things work, without any real understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing,” he explained. He went on to say that his kids have come to see the math they are being taught today as “voodoo.”
The reason to replace calculus with data science, according to Levitt, is because data science is “literally the expression of what is happening in the world.” He explained that data science lets students become “the discoverers of knowledge, as opposed to the recipients of the brilliance of past generations dumping knowledge upon them, with the hope that somehow it will stick.”
One of the challenges facing the introduction of data science into any math curriculum is finding the proper place for it. Would something have to go for data science to fit in? If so, what? Just how important is calculus, in the grand scheme of things?
Then came an even more controversial question, one that may have an even deeper meaning than just dumping calculus – some believe there are racial and socioeconomic disparities at virtually every level of mathematics.
“When we think about computer science or math, the images that most people have in their heads are not of women, they’re not of people of color,” said summit participant Elena Grewal, the former head of data science at Airbnb. “This is an opportunity to reset. How can we ensure that everyone is included in this new field and feels like they can master these concepts?”
So, we circle back to calculus and its importance. “Calculus sits on this whole system of tracking and racial inequalities,” Boaler said. “Calculus is the only AP class where you need to be advanced in middle school in order to get there.” As early as sixth grade is when it is determined if a certain student should be able to move on to calculus. “That is wrong on so many levels. Data science could be different, particularly if we go into this with our eyes open.”
California has been trying to lead the movement toward bringing equitable data science and statistics into the mainstream mathematics curriculum. Earlier this year they introduced a draft of new guidelines that would pretty much have reinvented the mathematics wheel. It was open for public comment and the public didn’t hold back on voicing their disagreement
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While the draft spoke much about changing the curriculum, it also went much deeper into the social justice realm by suggesting teachers should be using their math lessons to explore social justice. As an example, the draft called for teachers to look out for gender stereotypes in their word problems. It was also suggested that the new math should apply its math concepts to topics such as inequality or immigration.
The public fired back with scathing comments claiming this new mathematics plan would inject “woke” politics into a subject that is meant to be practical as well as precise. Politics and math, never a good combination.
One summit participant, Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California Board of Education, explained that the math curriculum sequence we use now dates back to 1892 and as she says, “It’s a fairly antiquated approach to teaching.” Outdated, possibly, but it is one that most colleges accept as “law.”
In Oregon, they are introducing the Oregon Math Project aimed at “making math meaningful for every student.” Per their website, the stated project’s “vision on math education in Oregon is to ensure that all students attain mathematics proficiency by having access to high-quality instruction that includes challenging and coherent content in a learning environment where each student receives the support they need to succeed in mathematics.”
In practice Oregon’s new law means that students in Oregon school districts are no longer allowed to take advanced math courses. Similar changes which bock students from learning more advanced math like Calculus are being rolled out in other states too, most notably in Oregon’s northern neighbor Washington. In Washington, billionaire Bill Gates has been using the promise of funding from his foundation in order to push schools towards “Equitable Math” in order to as they say it “to dismantle white surpremacy”.
Getting colleges on board with the possibility of high schools ditching calculus for “more equitable data science” is a task Boaler and Levitt are in the midst of trying to accomplish. While they continue to discuss with college administrators to broaden their scope as it pertains to what they will accept as math requirements, they also continue to push for more options for students in high school.