In today’s Baltimore Sun, University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. Kirwan, a former math professor, says that he wants to see university-bound high school seniors forced to take challenging math courses. His object is to better prepare students for college and for STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) careers. It is his hope that forcing students into math classes will produce more STEM majors at the university level.
If the object is to channel more students toward math and technology careers, then we should be spending more time identifying likely prospects far earlier in their lives, not using a “one-size fits all” approach after having ignored differences in aptitude for a child’s first three years of secondary school. As a former high school teacher, I can tell you that it is usually clear by a student’s sophomore year whether or not he or she will be a math scholar. The 300 lb. gorilla in the corner of the room is the fact that many of our children are just not equipped for advanced math courses, and for them, surviving basic math classes is challenge enough. Compelling kids to take advanced math courses will not change this, and is patently unfair to a student who will derive no real benefit from it.
This brings me to a second ugly truth that mathematicians hate to admit: very few adults retain and use advanced math skills in their daily lives. In the Sun article, Skip Fennell, a professor at McDaniel College and former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in defending the proposed requirement, says as much. “If you don’t use it, you lose it…” Mr. Fennell, this applies to nearly everyone who isn’t in on a STEM career path. More to the point, many kids never had it to begin with, and won’t miss it as adults.
The narrow utility of advanced math skills sits in stark contrast to the broad and sweeping utility of English language skills. Whereas mastering calculus is of dubious value to the majority of graduates, being able to use language at a high level is absolutely essential for anyone hoping to do more with their lives than settle for low-paying, menial work. Additionally, I can personally attest to the weakness of our high school graduates in the areas of reading and composition, and these students (and their instructors who are forced to slog through their papers) suffer as a result. It may even be true that a STEM major at the university level will spend as much time crafting sentences as equations, and yet we hear nothing of increasing requirements for this critical, and universally necessary skill.
If this suggestion becomes reality, there is little doubt that those students with an aptitude for mathematics will enter college more prepared for STEM classes. But not every college-bound senior has this aptitude. If we truly want to be about the business of creating STEM scholars, then we had better get on it while our children are still in elementary school, rather than penalizing them as high school seniors.
For my part, I would rather see our educational system geared to identifying each student’s strengths at an early age and then directing their coursework to produce citizens highly equipped to succeed in life. Not every child has the intellectual makeup for success in math and science; to act as if they do does both the student and the national economy a disservice. Rather than requiring every peg to fit into a round hole, why not invest time and treasure in identifying the peg’s shape, and then creating holes that fit?