Op-Ed: How can we get more students interested in math?


Companies like Google, Apple, and Intel offer some of the most innovative — and best-paying — jobs in California. Last year, these three companies alone made it more than 10,000 people from other countries to take on these jobs.

Surely it would be easier for them to rent closer to where they live and skip the visa and other paperwork. One of the main reasons they don’t is that too few Californians have the skills – in particular the deep understanding of mathematics. It’s a situation we shouldn’t tolerate, and something the state’s new proposed mathematical framework seeks to change.

The current system of mathematics education in the United States invites few students to the richness of thought, learning, and ultimately careers that mathematical understanding enables. We blunt our children’s possibilities almost from the start by telling far too many of them at a very early age that math is not for them.

Sometimes these communications are explicit; They are often embedded in school or district decisions to direct students down different paths as early as the third or fourth grade, teaching them math that often limits how far they can go. Unbeknownst to children or their families, these grouping decisions determine students’ academic progress through high school and beyond. This is far too early to make decisions for students that can affect their life arc. It’s a ruthless waste of human potential.

We then proceed to make the math even less inviting with an original sequence of courses established in the 1800sin a time before computers, artificial intelligence or coding – and the jobs that come with them.

Even before the pandemic – which has slowed down learning for so many – only about 40% of the students in California were proficient in mathematics. That means 60% of the state’s students don’t meet the standards that define California one of the worst performing states in the USA, a country that cannot keep up with global competition. America ranked 37th in math in 2018, according to the International Student Assessment Program, which measures how effectively countries are preparing students for the math demands of the 21st century.

That’s why in 2019, a committee of 20 educators from across California was appointed to develop a different approach to math education and update the state’s math framework. I was one of five writers charged with articulating the ideas of this group.

More than 3,000 people – educators, parents, a range of professionals, STEM academics and industry leaders, and more than 50 influential organizations like the California Mathematics Council and the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics have expressed support for the guidelines. The framework is advisory; the authority to make final decisions remains at the local level. A draft was published a year ago in February and thousands of public comments were reviewed.

the new frame has updated its advice on accommodating the needs of students at different levels of ability and stresses that schools should not slow down children who are already doing well, nor lead young children down a path to mathematical nowhere. This corrects a common notion – that the framework would hold back high-performing students.

The framework also provides guidance on ways that could enable more of our children to fall in love with math and excel at it. It recommends teaching less isolated subjects and more connected ideaswith students investigating, problem solving and arguing through assignments that engage them deeply.

It also offers more flexibility in the high school courses, Improvement on the single-valued path of the pastand the goal of increasing student engagement and access so that many more students will take advanced courses such as calculus and other higher-level offerings.

One of the new courses identified in the framework for students in their junior and senior years is data science, a student-responsive subject that is valued by colleges and important for the future. At a time when jobs in fields like artificial intelligence, machine learning, information security, data analysis and software development are burgeoning, giving students more math options and encouraging more students to take high-level math courses is vital.

This is a deeply personal issue for me. At my local public secondary school in England, my physics teacher told me I could not advance to higher levels of science as I was unable to learn the content. He gave the same message to every girl in the class. My family fought back and I excelled in physics at school. My first job as a maths teacher in London was teaching 13-year-olds who had been assigned to the lower grades. A girl from a low-income household understood the message of this persecution all too well. She caught up with me and asked, “Why should I bother?”

The question became our common challenge. I gave her harder problems so she could do well on the national math exam. She passed this exam, which enabled her to train as a sound engineer. She then founded a well-known sound production company. Her career would not have been possible if she had only been allowed to do the work intended for her in the lower mathematics track.

Both she and I had been told that we weren’t good enough at the quantitative subjects we were studying—and neither of us were. The same message is being conveyed to many students in California – and that is one of the reasons why there are relatively few students in the United States who are proficient in math. California’s new math framework will help us do better.

Jo Boaler is Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University. Op-Ed: How can we get more students interested in math?

Caroline Bleakley

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