TEACHER VOICE: Calculus is a roadblock for too many students; let’s teach statistics instead

The Calculus Book That Changed The World
The Calculus Book That Changed The World

When I took calculus in high school, I didn’t understand a single concept. By the grace of an extremely generous teacher, I marginally passed the class. In college, I got through three levels of calculus, but I didn’t understand anything.

During my second attempt at learning Calculus III, I listened as the professor described missile trajectories and satellite positioning, and I asked myself: “I’m a bio major, when am I going to launch a missile!?”

Today I teach biology at a private high school in New York City; I’ve also taught math for the past six years.

I no longer struggle to understand the fundamental concepts of calculus, but I’ve chosen not to teach the course. Instead, I developed a “math applications” class specifically for high school students who are not “calculus bound.”

In my class, students analyze real-world data and share what they’ve learned visually. Many discover that math isn’t only an esoteric language, it is a way to make sense of the world and share that understanding with others.

I believe that deprioritizing abstract math like calculus in favor of practical math, with a focus on statistical literacy, reduces barriers to entry and will help increase diversity in the STEM fields.

Before taking math applications, many of my students, like many Americans, had significant levels of math anxiety. All joked that they were the “dumb kids” because they didn’t understand algebra or trigonometry. Now they tell me that, as one student beautifully expressed it, “Math isn’t meant to be a trap, it’s like a puzzle that allows us to discover an interesting hidden picture.”

This is the class that I should have taken in high school. Unfortunately, my class is an anomaly.

Valorizing calculus as a proxy for intelligence and potential for succeeding in the STEM fields is nearly universal, has negative consequences for education and has kept many students from exploring STEM majors in college.

Despite all this time and effort to teach kids calculus, very few students even consider majoring in math. In fact, only about 1.3 percent, or 31,000, of the over 2 million annual college graduates major in math. Most students who take calculus in high school are doing so to “look good for college.” Approximately 80 percent of these students retake the course in college.

I’ve done some simple back-of-the-envelope calculations regarding the amount of time spent learning calculus to determine whether it is time well spent. If you assume that one semester of classes takes about 100 hours to complete, a student will spend a minimum of 200 hours of time in calculus class for a given year.

If 400,000 students — a conservative number — are taking calculus in high school, we are now talking about 80 million hours. Double that to include college students, and we are talking about 160 million collective hours of student life.

This equals more than 18,000 calendar years — all on a subject fewer than 5 percent of students will ever use in a professional setting, and likely never again.

For context, farming was developed about 12,000 years ago. That means that every year we are spending 1.5 times more time teaching calculus than it took for modern civilization to arise.

This is a terrible return on investment! What could those non-math-majors learn with all those collective years?

I listened as the professor described missile trajectories and satellite positioning, and I asked myself: “I’m a bio major, when am I going to launch a missile!?”

This isn’t to say that calculus has zero value. Rocket scientists, physicists and civil engineers use calculus daily. And for students who don’t pursue those careers there is value in terms of accurately characterizing and solving problems that deal with variable rates of change. But will a million students a year need these skills? What is the opportunity cost of attempting to develop these skills?

We could ask those questions of every class a student takes in high school. The difference is that most courses in high school cultivate skills with broader applications. For example, even if a student never reads Shakespeare or writes another essay after graduating, literacy and writing fluency are still necessary in almost every single field.

An equally important dimension to consider is calculus’s effect on access to degrees and equity. We can’t ignore how calculus serves as a formidable gatekeeper. Of the 15 highest-paying undergraduate degrees, all but one require at least one semester of calculus at most colleges.

This means that students who struggle with math are effectively barred from pursuing the degrees that lead to the highest starting salaries. The calculus requirement also deters underrepresented students, many of whom have never received sufficiently rigorous math teaching, from pursuing STEM degrees.

It is one thing to say that someone shouldn’t major in aerospace engineering or computer science if they can’t handle calculus, but do we really need to dissuade them from pursuing a degree in finance or biology?

How many finance majors will become derivatives traders? How many biologists will pursue a career in modeling cell motion? Why do pre-med students have to take 2-3 semesters of calculus but zero semesters of statistics, the discipline that most informs best health practices?

Related: PROOF POINTS: How a debate over the science of math could reignite the math wars

The original impetus for promoting high school calculus in the 1960s was fear of the Russians winning the space race. That is not a good reason to continue to push calculus today.

I believe nearly all high school students will be best served by taking statistics instead. There are significantly more occasions, both inside and outside of a career, that require statistical literacy than require technical expertise in calculus.

Statistics are necessary to understand and navigate the barrage of data we now see daily. If we want students to successfully navigate digital misinformation and separate half-truths from lies, especially when most people get news via social media, which has a strong financial incentive to promote content that increases “engagement” at the cost of verifiable truth, they will need to have a solid sense of statistical literacy and validity.

Colleges are risk-averse, move slowly and are unlikely to spearhead change. High schools could change how they emphasize certain courses, but pressure on students to get into selective colleges, along with long-held perceptions that having calculus on their transcripts will help them achieve that goal, makes change difficult.

So, it’s time for parents to strongly encourage their children to take statistics instead of calculus in high school. Statistical literacy is potentially as important as traditional literacy, regardless of the path a student chooses.

If we are serious about increasing academic equity and improving the educational experience and outcomes for all, it’s time de-emphasize calculus.

Selim Tlili is a high school science teacher at The Ramaz School in New York City. He earned his bachelor’s in biology from SUNY Geneseo and his master’s in public health from Hunter College. Follow his writing at selim.digital.

This story about statistical literacy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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