DEGREES OF FREEDOM: Diversifying Math Requirements for College Readiness and Graduation (Report 1 of a 3-part series)

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Year of publication: 
April 2015
Publication: 
Policy Analysis for California Education

Since the mid-20th century, the standard U.S. high school and college math curriculum has been based on two years of algebra and a year of geometry, preparing students to take classes in pre-calculus followed by calculus. That pathway became solidified after the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik motivated reforms in U.S. science and engineering education to boost the nation’s technological prowess. Students’ math pursuits have been differentiated primarily by how far or how rapidly they proceed along a clearly defined trajectory that has changed little since then.

But evolutions in various disciplines and in learning sciences are calling into question the relevance and utility of this trajectory as a requirement for all students. The emerging movement is toward differentiated “math pathways” with distinct trajectories tied to students’ goals. Alternatives emphasizing statistics, modeling, computer science, and quantitative reasoning that are cropping up in high schools and colleges are beginning to challenge the dominance of the familiar math sequence.

The drive toward acknowledging the importance of multiple domains within math is prompted largely by two developments:

Technological tectonics. The advent of new technologies is creating novel applications of math in various academic disciplines, elevating the importance of statistics, data analysis, modeling, and computer science in the undergraduate curriculum. It is also leading faculty members outside of math departments to pay more attention to their students’ quantitative preparation.

Demand for deeper learning. Learning scientists and math educators are emphasizing the importance of students’ developing the capacity to use math skills and knowledge to solve problems in various contexts rather than simply learning isolated procedures and facts. American students’ poor performance in traditional math sequences as well as the high proportion of college students taking remedial math have some reformers asking whether more applied courses would better lend themselves to the effective instruction needed to support college success.

The dialogues converge in broader conversations about how colleges’ expectations shape what students need to learn in K–12 schools— as well as in community colleges, which send hundreds of thousands of transfer students annually to four-year institutions. Decisions about math requirements and expectations will have a major impact on the academic opportunities of millions of students nationally.

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