Rare Calculus Classes Raise Questions on Advanced Study

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

According to the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, fewer than half of all high schools in the United States offer calculus courses, and only 63% of them offer physics courses.

The reasons high schools have stopped offering these courses are attributable to a lack of resources, shortage of experienced staff, and insufficient demand. Students are unable to succeed at a higher-level coursework if a strong foundation is not laid in mathematics and the sciences.

Megan McNulty of Deseret News writes that there is also a racial disparity in schools that lack access to core science and math offerings. 25% of the schools with the highest black and Latino populations did not even offer Algebra II, while only a third offered chemistry.

Some are wondering if the lack of upper-level math and science courses is such a bad thing. Many students end up deflating their grade point averages after struggling with upper-level math that they do not need for their college majors or later careers.

For example, according to Desert News, a report by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School found that 30% of New York City high school students in the class of 2014 failed the Algebra I exam. Those who failed at the first time took the test two more times, and the pass rate for repeat failures fell to 20% percent. More than 2,500 students took the Algebra exam more than five times. The authors of the study call this the “Algebra Whirlpool.” Data like this suggests that educators might need to reassess what subjects are considered as part of a core curriculum.

Additionally, in a column for Forbes, Steven Salzburg of Johns Hopkins University has recommended getting rid of calculus classes in high school altogether to make space for computer science and statistics courses. “My daughters are taking the same courses I took long ago: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. These are all fine subjects, but they don’t serve the needs of the 21st century,” Salzburg writes.“What math courses do young people really need? Two subjects are head-smackingly obvious: computer science and statistics. Most high schools don’t offer either one. In the few schools that do, they are usually electives that only a few students take.”

Nonetheless, high-level math coursework remains relevant who are entering college. US News writes:

“Colleges view chemistry and Algebra II as vital indicators of students’ ability and aptitude. And these two courses are essential to preparing more students for a future in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) that offer high-paying jobs and add to our nation’s economic potential.”

The Foundation for Excellence in Education launched its own Course Access program that allows students to select courses for themselves from an online catalog. The program is designed to “maximize the use of resources, better serve students and ensure districts are evolving with the needs of the 21st-century student.” For interested readers, more information about Course Access is available online.