Head of School Blog Post

Why We Still Teach Algebra II and Other Legacy Math Subjects

Co-Authored with Dr. Marc Lindner (HS Principal and Assoc. Head) and Reuben Silberman (Math Dept. Chair)

A recent Washington Post perspective article argues that Algebra II and, perhaps, Calculus should be removed from high school math curricula across the country because students won’t likely use the topics in those courses. In their place, the author suggests that courses on big data or statistics would be most relevant to their future needs. As high school educators, we have some thoughts to add to this discussion and want to share some of our insights from our direct work with students. 

Regular reviews of curriculum are essential to enhancing and advancing our students’ learning. All curriculum can be improved and should be revised on a periodic basis to stay current with new understanding and research. We also believe strongly that curriculum should strive to be relevant and engaging for students. With little change, the Algebra-Geometry-Algebra II sequence of high school math has been firmly in place since the 19th century. Given this longevity, examination of the efficacy of the sequence is certainly in order, and we want to inject what we believe is important nuance into this discussion.

Algebra II, and for that matter, other courses like Geometry, may not be used by students going into non-mathematics fields in the future, but these classes do expose students to important skills and thinking that are broadly transferable, and which extend well beyond the school years. We do not feel that students are wasting their time in these subject areas just because the content taught may not be tied to their future careers.

Often, subjects like math or science are held to a standard for relevance that the humanities are not. The presumption about math is often that its value derives from its direct, job-market relevance or its content rather than from the skills and thinking it promotes. Novels that high school students study are taught not only because of the intricacies of their specific plots but because we want to expose students to important skills and concepts. The same is true in math. We don’t teach Algebra II and Geometry because they will be important when students work at a tech start-up (they probably will), but because the critical skills and thinking they learn will be important to any student, regardless of their career path. The two of us who are math teachers feel it is essential that we and our colleagues make the skills and thinking we are teaching compelling for students – just as we feel we need English teachers who can make their discipline’s skills compelling to learners.

A 2018 report from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics, makes a similar case to the one we are advancing. The report indicates that the main goal of math courses should be to teach students to be better able to understand and critique the world, not just to prepare them for college classes or professional work. This includes the ability to identify, interpret, and critique math in social, scientific, and political systems; to understand math in polls, the media, and other communications; and to make good financial decisions and analyze research.

An additional area to consider is the role that individual high schools play in setting the conversation for our country’s mathematics curriculum. The majority of US colleges and universities and most competitive colleges, including the University of Maryland where our school is located, still require Algebra I and II, Geometry, and Precalculus as requirements for admission. We see significant merit in the skills all these math subjects teach. Furthermore, in a rigorous college preparatory academic environment, there is little flexibility to do away with the traditional program for most students. Unless the higher education system decides to make a large-scale shift away from the current requirements, we would be hurting our students’ chances for acceptance to most colleges by radically changing our current curriculum.

Jay Matthews, the author of the Washington Post article, recommends that adding more big-data and statistics into the curriculum would serve all students well in the future. We agree exposing students to more data analysis would be valuable for them. Our math department is already talking about ways to incorporate more data science into our program. We think adding more of this content over time will push the curriculum toward the larger learning goals we have and towards increased everyday applicability.

Reviewing legacy content and asking questions about why it is included in curriculum is part of the thoughtful work we do as educators on a regular basis. Reports like the NCTM’s and opinion pieces like Mr. Matthews’ are valuable in raising important questions around what we teach and why we teach it. Change in education is often the rule. However, when we revisit the foundational courses, we sometimes find that their continued inclusion in the curriculum, with some appropriate modifications, is justified based on the essential skills and thinking students gain from studying these subjects.

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