High school math, and algebra, in particular, is in crisis. Although some students thrive on the pathway to calculus, most do not. Algebra I is the single most failed course in American high schools. Thirty-three percent of students in California, for example, took Algebra I at least twice during their high school careers. And students of color or those experiencing poverty are overrepresented in this group.
Some argue that algebra as part of the pathway to calculus is less and less relevant in today’s world and that students would be better served by taking fewer courses in algebra and more in fields such as statistics and data science. The University of California, for example, has ruled that statistics and data science courses can be taken in place of Algebra 2 to meet its admission requirements.
Others push back against this approach, arguing that high-level participation in careers in science, technology, engineering and math will, ultimately, require calculus, and that luring students away from Algebra 2 and into data science will cut them off from these career opportunities, including jobs in data science! Furthermore, many worry that students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are at greater risk of failing Algebra I, will be those most likely to be tracked into these alternative math pathways, and thus more likely to be lost from the STEM pipeline.
Students should not be forced to choose between math courses that are more engaging, relevant and modern (the data science path) and those that give them opportunities to study the math they will need if they wish to pursue STEM-related careers (the calculus path). All students could benefit from learning about statistics, data science and coding. But if they plan to work in data science, or in other STEM-related fields, they also will need a deep understanding of algebra.