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Do Students Need Calculus Anymore?

Caroline Delbert
·3 min read

From Popular Mechanics

Mathematician Daniel Rockmore asks a provocative question at Salon: “Is it time to kill calculus?

Rockmore explains a case made by Freakonomics economist and provocateur Steven Levitt, who says he believes math pedagogy in general needs a big update, including an increased emphasis on statistics and data literacy broadly. Among his supporters he counts FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver, whom Rockmore describes as a “statistics celebrity.”

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Americans act very protective of math curricula despite having low or even bottom rankings among peer nations in even basic math literacy. When Common Core was introduced, with math standards whose pace did not meet STEM standards for many universities, parents still complained that the instruction of basic arithmetic was too complicated. Common Core’s goals to have a unified standard conflicted with examples shared online of elaborate story problems.

But the arithmetic goals underpinning the Common Core program represent a similar idea to the one Levitt is putting forward now. What math are people really using, and how can we prepare them to do it better, faster, and with more confidence? With arithmetic, that means ideas like rapidly making change or doing other transactional or household math in your head. And with Levitt’s new committee for reforming math curricula, it means more focus on statistics over calculus.

Nothing is wrong with calculus. Calculus rules! It’s foundational to almost everything in physics, college mathematics, engineering, and the rest of hard science and many social sciences. The area beneath curves, a critical basic building block of calculus, ends up interacting with statistics in forms like the bell curve of regular statistical distribution. In turn, statistics and probability have colored almost every mathematical discipline and chipped off several new hybrid areas of specialization.

One expert in Levitt’s project, Salon reports, has worked for years on math curriculum reform because of what she calls the “calculus funnel.” Children in many districts take placement tests as young as sixth grade that put them on one math “track” or another, and due to widely studied social factors in education that are perpetuated by everyone from teachers themselves to family members, boys still outperform girls on these tests, for example.

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It’s not an equitable way to decide who studies which mathematics, or to assign college-bound value to those students. That’s in addition to critiques of education that insists everyone must aim toward college at the exclusion of life skills, practical mathematics for financial independence, and other kinds of math that students might even use to get by while spending their days studying higher mathematics.

There’s another key point here. As more and more students study computing and programming, there’s incentive to give them access to discrete mathematics, which is the counterpoint to calculus’s continuous mathematics: think counting numbers versus decimals that stretch into infinity. And what Levitt wants to include—data science—is an interesting middle ground between the two, with rays that extend into programming, data entry and management, and even proofreading, a multidisciplinary field that teaches key ideas from many areas of study.

Levitt most directly advocates for turning the current model of high school math, the “algebra-geometry-algebra sandwich,” into something where students have more options for the second algebra. If that means more kids who opt away from precalculus because of their interests elsewhere, honestly, Sir Isaac Newton probably approves.

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