Who Really Needs Four Years of Math and Science?

Steve A. Davidson, Ed.D.
Guest Columnist EducationNews.org

In 2007, Tennessee’s Governor Phil Bredesen related plans to raise education standards by calling for every high school student to take four years of high school mathematics and announced that he would ask the state school agencies to review the curriculum throughout the school systems and work to make it "more specific, more rigorous, and better aligned with what our children really need to succeed in college or the workplace."

This is similar to what Bill Gates told a congressional committee when he said, "the U.S. cannot maintain its economic leadership unless our work force consists of people who have the knowledge and skills needed to drive innovation…We simply cannot sustain an economy based on innovation unless our citizens are educated in math, science and engineering."

How, exactly, will increased standardization lead to innovation?

There is nothing innovative about repeated testing and nothing innovative about reducing the K-12 curriculum to math and science, gods who politicians want every American child to worship. Governor Tom Vilsack (Iowa) demonstrated his understanding of the misguided intentions of non-educators when he said, "We don't need a nation of standardized test-takers. We need a generation of creative risk takers."

Governor Bredesen also proposed an investment in personalizing the high school experience as a means to engage students in a rigorous curriculum. In addition, he wants to ensure that all eighth- and tenth-grade students take the appropriate ACT test, which will be used to help create individual learning plans for each high school student. This is a contradiction of his first proposal. There is no room for creating individual learning plans when the curriculum is narrowed and choices removed.

The word "rigor" is used to suggest that our students are not receiving an education that will allow them "to compete on a global scale." Rigor implies "strictness, severity, harshness, inflexibility, and the inability to respond to stimuli" which is a contradiction of what creates effective teaching and meaningful learning. The statement that "we…are behind much of the world in math and science" is a mantra advocated by bashers of public education and even parroted by some misinformed educators. What research supports this claim? Even international test comparisons do not uphold it.

Although schooling is no doubt a necessary ingredient for successful human development and growth, how well students perform in the classroom is not necessarily the best indicator of a nation's economic future. Education, as it turns out, is not nearly as important to economic competitiveness as educators would like to think. Researchers for the World Economic Forum, in its Global Competitiveness Report, showed that, despite widespread criticisms, "The United States remains the most competitive nation in the world." And from 1950 to 2007 Americans have won 208, or 57%, of the 363 Nobel Prizes awarded in medicine, physics and chemistry. The sky is not falling.

Professor of chemistry and mathematics, Dr. Dennis Redovich asked, "What is the rationale for all…high school students passing three (or four) advanced courses in math and science to receive a high school diploma? What is the rationale for 'all' high school graduates satisfying the requirements for admission to a four-college program? There is none!" Redovich says that:
According to the Department of Workforce Development, higher mathematics proficiency is not important for everyday living nor is it required for more than 90% of jobs. Only 5% of jobs in the United States in the 2000s might require higher math and or science course work. But high stakes mathematics testing and higher mathematics course requirements are being used to retain students in lower elementary grades and prevent students from graduation from high school. Why is testing math proficiency more important than any other academic subject, other than reading, at every level of K-12 education?
The reason is that mathematics is an academic subject for which tests can be easily prepared and scored quantitatively. Those who wish to expose public education as an academic failure can conveniently use mathematics test scores as evidence that public education is failing. The political, business, and education leaders…who are responsible for education policies…ignore the actual employment statistics and projections.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that most of the education and training occupations with the largest job growth from 2006 to 2016 will require on-the-job training or work experience in a related field (69%). Next on the list, at only 12.5%, are occupations that even require a bachelor's degree.

Two facts have been ignored: (1) All high school students are not going to college and (2) all college students are not attending because of their love, or need, of math (or science). Adding another unnecessary high school requirement to the already nearly-full plate of existing requirements will do nothing more than prevent students from making educational plans suited to their individual interests. If students are interested in English, music, drafting, history, art, science, civics – and yes, even math – they may choose (called electives) to take the courses that fit their individual plan, as the governor proposed. It is not possible to "standardize" American education and at the same time make it more "innovative" or "individualized" for our students.

An unintended and detrimental by-product of adding two (or three) more requirements will result in the deletion of that same number of electives. There are only a limited number of periods in which a student can arrange his/her classes. If additional math, science, P.E., and personal finance classes are added, the opportunities for vocational training will be reduced or eliminated, as well as disrupting the vital continuity of fine arts classes. There will be many students who will have to sacrifice elective classes that (a) are important to their non-math/non-science career choice or (b) may be personally important.

These curriculum changes are being driven by the draconian, one-size-fits-all, law of No Child Left Behind, not because these changes are educationally, personally, or socially beneficial. How many math and science classes are actually needed to succeed in life…or in the majority of workplaces? Retired educator Terry Olson stated that:
Except for the tiny number of people who pursue careers in mathematics, science, engineering, computer programming, accounting (maybe), medical research, academic research (involving statistics), or professional gambling, who needs algebra?
Not bankers, teachers, nurses, doctors, musicians, real estate salesmen, clerks, longshoremen, truck drivers, carpenters, painters, architects, firemen, policemen, warehousemen, gardeners, laborers, maids, restaurant workers, journalists, diplomats, Wal-Mart CEO's, or even school board members.

One goal of states’ boards of education is to increase the graduation rate (reduce drop-outs). I posit that increasing these "requirements" will increase the drop-out rate, thus reducing the graduation rate. Further, we will witness the demise of vocational education programs and fewer students enrolling in fine arts classes. I envision fewer successes and less inspired students which can only result in more negative consequences, especially with those who are already considered at-risk. To re-quote the governor, is this really "what our children…need to succeed in college or the workplace?" I think not. Relevance, not rigor, should drive the educational curriculum.

Published January 18, 2009


January 18th, 2009

Steve A. Davidson, Ed.D.

Guest Columnist EdNews.org

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