Thursday, August 1, 2013

B77. Where Math Education Has Failed

It’s time we rethink the mandated requirements of our math education.  Many of our societal and personal failures could be avoided if our required math curriculum were doing something different.

Every high school student, for example, is required to pass at least one level of algebra, college bound students more, depending on the university.  While algebra is helpful for preparing some students for higher math endeavors, it has proven to be for most students merely an exercise in abstraction, manipulating numbers to solve for seemingly meaningless x’s and y’s.  Most will never use it, because most never grasp what it’s even about.

Yet our real world is filled with high school (and even college and above) educated adults who struggle from paycheck to paycheck, not because they are at poverty level, but because they have never acquired the most basic money management skills.  I have regularly watched friends and professional colleagues struggle at the end of every month with how to pay (the minimum on) their multiple credit card bills.  They are late paying cable, phone, mortgage/rent, or electric bills, accumulating additional charges.  They throw away hundreds/thousands of dollars every year on interest without having any clue where their money is going.

I remember one colleague getting violently angry at the school system because the December payday was one day later than she thought it was, causing problems with all her bill payments.  Another acquaintance who was making an annual $90,000 celebrated every payday with major shopping purchases and then had no money for groceries or bills the final week or two of the month. His whole family suffered for his lack of discipline.  Another didn’t have money to pay her electric bill, but it never occurred to her that she could cancel her cable until she was able to afford it, or that she could live fine without a pedicure. How much public assistance might be eliminated if basic financial management skills were understood?

A recent survey showed more than 2/3 of the US adult population lives paycheck to paycheck.  This is epidemic, and while it’s easy to blame our ailing economy for our struggles, it seems more accurate to blame our lack of applicable math skills (perhaps coupled with our cultural demand for instant gratification), for both the economy and our personal financial struggles.  What if instead of solving for abstract x’s, all students at various grade levels focused on the practical philosophies and skills of managing their own money, from understanding throwing away money on credit card interest (by making minimal payments monthly), to how to get out of debt, and even to the very simple idea of saying no to what we can’t yet afford?

Practical math skill means understanding how grades work while we’re in school.  What if math students practiced fewer abstract averages and focused instead on averages that have meaning, like what happens to your grade average when a zero is added to the mix of 97, 94, and 100?

Yes, I’m talking about those dreaded word problems, but much more than that.  Not a single question about money management and a single question about grade averages, but a curriculum completely built around such practical and important life issues.  Math that can improve our academics and math that can give us financial freedom; math that once acquired, we naturally hand down to our children through our modeling, so they too can possess the skills for managing their lives.

Somehow, unintentionally mandated by governmental regulations, math has become a dreaded academic endeavor, a meaningless exercise of abstract symbology.  Surely there is good purpose for this in some higher level degrees and in many math and science related career paths.  Algebra, trigonometry, and calculus should always be offered for those who excel in math and are preparing for careers that use them, but for the masses, for that 2/3 of the population who think they just don’t get paid enough, our math curriculum is failing.

2 disclaimers: This article is not about the many who are indeed living at or below poverty level, nor is it about any failure on the part of math teachers.  Math teachers are teaching what the curriculum mandates they teach.

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Other Education posts:

B53. Compassion Belongs Outside the Gradebook
B54. Teachers Wasting Federal Funds?


Ron Amundson said...

Hmmm, the same could be said for the math bits of engineering and science education at the university level. The teaching methodology is one that insane levels of math abstraction are needed to be able to teach the concepts of upper level STEM.

The real life issue is that only a few scientists and engineers can remember a fraction of the math the were taught once out in the field for a few years. In addition the insane levels of abstraction serve to reduce the number of potentially fine scientists and engineers as they wash out as the educational process is so screwed up.

I understand the need to create folks who do and enjoy math for maths sake, but I think such does a severe disservice to society as a whole.

Kathy Vestal said...

Thanks, Ron, for reading and for sharing your higher ed input!

Daniele Ickes said...

We have the same sentiment towards the Math education, Kathy. While Algebra promotes critical thinking, most of it is taught at an abstract level and so the students grow up not knowing where to apply such concepts, unless they become engineers or scientists. Well, we all know not everyone can be math and science geniuses, and that's what I think the Math curriculum aims to fill. Daniele @

Kathy Vestal said...

Hi Daniele - Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!