Research and Reflections

8 Questions About High School Math and STEM

A high school algebra teacher shares her thoughts on high school math myths and misconceptions

Is there a shortage of STEM workers?

The call for more STEM workers (associated with science, technology, engineering, and all rooted in math) has been challenged by credible sources in recent years, so I did a little investigating. It appears that blanket exhortations for young people to pursue STEM careers may be misguided in some ways.  Andrew Hacker’s, The Math Myth has sold well.  I wholeheartedly agree with Hacker and others he quotes that Algebra 2, touted as the gateway to STEM opportunities, has done more to lower graduation rates than any other course.  However, I don’t share all of his conclusions.1

What are STEM skills?

Recent claims that the market for STEM workers is saturated are based upon a narrow definition of STEM.  When I advocate for STEM thinking and STEM skills, I have the 4 C’s in mind:  collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.  While I realize some STEM jobs are in higher demand than others and that some sectors are, indeed, saturated, I don’t think most 21st Century employers prefer employees that can’t work together, can’t communicate well, and can’t figure their way out of a paper bag. I suspect market analysis for STEM jobs does not include all the support roles such as technical writers (need physics) or quality assurance (operating coordinate measurement machines).  But, as Hacker points out, those skills are not developed by performing tedious math processes, especially those largely performed through a memorized sequence.

What is the problem with high school math?

Many US math teachers have very dense curriculum and see no better way to cover it all than by daily explaining and demonstrating procedures related to theorems students accept entirely by faith.  I believe most teachers are doing the best they can with sometimes impossible situations.  Most explain the procedures before showing students what to do. However, students quickly figure out they can pass tests in the short-term by zoning out during the explanation if they focus on the steps.  Hacker points to many examples of boring, tedious procedures that are in traditional textbooks.  He argues that it is wrong to require all students to learn those procedures, and I agree with some of his examples.  The problem could be all but fixed if teachers were using materials accurately aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Love them or hate them, CCSS weeds out most of the minimally-extensible, boring, tedious procedures and leave room for explorations and developing numeracy.  But the extraneous procedures remain in unaligned texts and are encoded into curricula, leaving teachers with little choice other than to teach them.

Why doesn’t high school curriculum align to CCSS?

US high school math teachers typically have gone into teaching math because they see the beauty of math and/or love following those procedures.  They learned those procedures when they were in school and believe they are still necessary for college readiness.  I would assume not all colleges have shifted, but reports are increasingly claiming they have expectations very similar to CCSSAP, SAT, and ACT tests are also similar.  Teachers often do not understand when their students lack the energy to jump through the hoops to pass tests.  The words lazy, irresponsible, and undisciplined make their way into teacher discussions, along with the perception, “They don’t care.”  It seems fitting those students should fail.  Hacker would disagree because he does not believe all students should be taking those classes to begin with.  I disagree with both those who want to keep all the non-extensible, tedious procedures, and with Hacker’s thinking that students should take whatever kind of math floats their boat…because we’re talking about teens, here.

Why are so many students checking out in Algebra 2?

Hacker writes about “students whose aptitudes lie outside of mathematics”2 and I saw no evidence he embraces a growth mindset.  I don’t think the problem has much to do with ability.  I have never met a student within normal rages of intelligence for whom I believed higher levels of math were out of reach. Certainly some of my students grasp topics faster than others, but I would not rule students out for the sake of speed.  Granted, I have only worked with about 1,200 students, but with the tons of research echoing what I see, I cringe to hear anyone assume that some of these students are incapable.

Should we let students opt out of Algebra 2?

I don’t know of anyone arguing against the idea that students are individuals and have different needs.  However, it is difficult to imagine why one would want a sixteen-year-old to make academic decisions that could set him or her back a year or two at college. After all, it is not uncommon for college students to change their majors multiple times.  I believe the better idea is to limit topics in high school math to those in the CCSS and connect those topics to thought processes we all use in real life.  Some, like Hacker, argue for two tracks:  one for calculus and one for statistics.  The CCSS balances the two with respect to content, keeping students’ options for both.

What does CCSS Algebra 2 look like?

Algebra 2 was designed to be a capstone course that makes powerful use of math previously learned while stretching toward upper levels of math.  While modeling is incorporated throughout the high school standards, students are expected to increase their ability to analyze increasingly sophisticated scenarios, using diverse methods of choice, and coming to conclusions they can defend.  This process closely mirrors the scientific method and design strategies.

What steps should be taken to improve Algebra 2?

In order to improve student appreciation and success with Algebra 2, studies support the need for relevance.  Standards, curriculum, and assessment writers need to:

My own observations and experience coincide with what I read in research. I believe these simple steps will significantly increase student success, regardless of their intended major.  Are any of these steps too difficult or costly?  I think not.

1Example 1:  On page 36 Hacker claims computer “coders” are underpaid; however, he appears to have confused American Association of Professional Coders (AAPC) with computer programmers who write code. Example 2:  On page 6, Hacker does not believe the ability to calculate exponential growth and decay is worthwhile.  Page 51, he does not seem to see the math in computer coding arrays.

2Page 11, “students whose aptitudes lie outside of mathematics.”

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About the Author: Lane Walker (@LaneWalker2) is a National Board Certified high school math teacher pursuing her doctorate in STEM curriculum at the University of Missouri. Her thesis, Common Core and STEM Opportunities, has been published in The Mathematics Enthusiast, a peer reviewed journal from the University of Montana. Lane was a 2013 Missouri State Finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She served as a panelist for Common Core Controversies at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, describing the effects of Common Core State Standards in math classrooms and has presented at State and local conferences. She has assisted with mathematics curriculum development and is a reviewer for Ed Reports.