Math Wars

tracks via duesentrieb on Flickr

A curriculum director in a public school district in the US recently posed this question on the NACAC listserv:

…we are preparing our math curriculum to reenter our program evaluation cycle which is a 3 year research and design process yielding a revised curriculum. As we prepare for this endeavor the “Math Wars” have re-emerged in our communities. Specifically, there is a desire, beginning as early as the 6th grade to place students in tracks or on a path to exit from high school with the minimal course exposure being Calculus 1. The motivation for this track is college admissions. I have a large, and vocal group of middle school parents arguing their students will not be prepared and accepted by competitive colleges and universities if they do not graduate with Calculus 1.

My questions/concerns include:

1. Is Calculus 1 an appropriate course to establish as the norm for a high school senior?
2. From your perspectives what are the advantages and disadvantages to this goal?
3. What role does Calculus 1 play in college admissions and readiness?

I’ve seen students for whom Calculus was an appropriate choice in the junior year (they went on to take multivariable calculus as seniors), and students for whom Calculus would have been a disastrous senior year choice. My sense is that the parent energy around this issue is born out of anxiety or fear. As parents think about the progress of their students through school, they want to imagine a future without limitations. For many of them the college search and application process will represent a re-shaping or narrowing of options, and so the underlying question of “but will this prevent him from getting into the very best colleges” threatens to drive everything.

Doesn’t any good curriculum represent a range of choices? Could we say that Calculus would be the most common senior year choice for students who are strong in (or strongly engaged by) math? Is Calculus in the senior currently the “norm” in the district? (I’ll confess the term makes me a little nervous.)

No parent believes that their student is one of the ones for whom Calculus would prove insurmountable, but the folks designing the curriculum have to keep those students in mind.

In my (small, independent, K12) school, I could produce a list of the colleges where students who had not completed Calculus had been offered a space. For that matter, I could produce a list of the colleges where our students with a documented learning difference had been offered a space. It’s possible that neither list would do anything to assuage parent anxiety, although I would know that each college name listed represented a happy ending.

In general, colleges look for students to continue to challenge themselves as they move through their curricula, particularly in the five academic “solids” (math, English, history, language, science). But for every college where the level of competition would make gaining admission more challenging for a student who hasn’t taken Calculus, there are five more where the achievement of a solid grade in Precalculus senior year would be something an admissions officer could point to as evidence of this student’s readiness to “hit the ground running” in college.

Parents want us to tell them, “This curriculum will make it possible for your student to attend the most selective schools in the country.” What we should be telling them is, “Every student will have access to the opportunity to take Calculus. More importantly, this curriculum will support your student’s desire to challenge him/herself. It will make it possible for students to deepen their passions, shore up their weak spots, and explore new territory. It will support their developing self-awareness, and will enable them to develop the skills and habits necessary for life-long learning.”

A girl can always dream.

(How would you approach this challenge?
Kind of wishing I was a curriculum designer.)
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Posted on May 22, 2009, in big picture. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. As a student who is really good at calculus, I feel that the large high school focus in the States and internationally is unintuitive. Calculus is just not used by the majority of people. This TED talk by Arthur Benjamin offers a much better approach: Make curriculum concentrate on statistics and probability… give them tools to use in their lives.

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