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Every Student Needs 21st-Century Data-Literacy Skills

Most educators understand that school curricula must evolve as the world changes. Refusing to adapt would do a terrible disservice to students, leaving them poorly prepared for their futures. Striking the right balance is difficult, but our schools usually find a way to forge ahead, teaching more Spanish and less Latin, more Angelou and less Shelley.

But math instruction seems to resist this needed evolution. Math is viewed by some as an immutable revelation, as if Pythagoras himself chiseled the curriculum into stone tablets and brought them down from the mountaintop. Thou shalt teach synthetic division! Thou shalt master factoring higher degree polynomials!

Why this perception persists is a mystery. High school math instruction has changed before. The current gauntlet of algebra through calculus was set in the 1960s in response to Russia’s Sputnik. To win the Space Race and the Cold War, the United States needed more scientists and engineers, and a steady diet of quadratic equations and differentials was considered the best way to cultivate them. Before this abrupt shift, high school math had been evolving slowly to include algebra and Euclidean geometry, in response to changing admissions standards at selective universities. In 1926, only 10 of the 310 questions on the SAT were about math, and those questions were limited to arithmetic and basic algebra.

Today, we could be more confident in our current math curriculum if little had changed in the world since the 1960s. But that would be an absurd position to take, of course. Society has been transformed over the past six decades, and in ways that have dramatically affected how we use math in our lives. Nearly every one of us walks around with a powerful computer in our pocket, capable of making billions of calculations per second. Each day, we collectively generate enough data to fill five Libraries of Congress. And the Internet has disrupted almost everything, including our most trusted sources of information. We now must sort fact from fiction for ourselves. Do cosmetics cause cancer? Is Covid-19 a threat to a healthy 5-year-old? Was the last election stolen?

Our lives have been changed by this revolution in so many ways, including the way we work. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in America are related to data. And while most of those roles are highly technical, computing and data have seeped into everyone’s workplace. Auto mechanics used to turn wrenches. Now they plug cars into computers and interpret the results. Teachers used to give lectures and write on chalkboards. Now they record their lessons on YouTube and analyze their students’ test scores with sophisticated software. Can you imagine how often today’s children will be working with data when they come of age?

In this new world, how useful is the math we are currently teaching in our schools? To get some insight into this question, we conducted a small survey with several hundred Freakonomics podcast listeners. While this sample is far from representative, it’s fair to say the respondents are likely to be biased toward overestimating the value of today’s math, as Freakonomics fans tend to be a pretty geeky crowd. The unscientific results of our poll suggest that educators have much work to do on the current math curriculum. Only 2 percent of respondents report that they use trigonometry in their daily work, while 66 percent say they are constantly building spreadsheets—a tool that is rarely covered in today’s curricula. Furthermore, when asked what math topics they wish they had learned more about in high school, 64 percent named data analysis and interpretation while only 5 percent said geometry.

What should be done? 

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