In the third part of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s excellent series on math education in the US, the writers look at the split between students going beyond the traditional Calculus in high school and those who struggle to just get the basics. For part four they look at how students are doing, focusing on standardized tests. If you missed the first two articles, check out part 1 and part 2 and, if you’re so inclined, my observations on those articles.

Over the years since I started teaching math (no, we were not still using slide rules :-), increasing numbers of middle school students have been taking Algebra, traditionally the first class in the high school math sequence. At the upper end, enrollment in Calculus has exploded, with some schools now trying to add courses that go beyond that level. But the writers of this series ask the very valid question: "Do all students really need higher level math?".

It’s almost an article of universal faith among people involved in the world of teaching mathematics: In today’s world and in the future, it is and will be important for almost every adult to be able to do math to succeed in life. But is it so? When’s the last time you did a quadratic equation? Or even multiplied two three-digit numbers using pencil and paper?

Even in a high-tech age, the number of people going into careers that call for advanced math is relatively small. The largest areas of recent and projected job growth are in the service sector, which mostly means jobs that require little knowledge of math.

The answer to the question of whether people "need" math is not a simple yes or no. Certainly everyone needs an understanding of basic algebraic concepts, if nothing else for the math sense that allows you to estimate what 25% off means. That doesn’t mean that students should take the full Algebra sequence common in most high schools. And the curriculum track that has almost every kid aiming for Calculus is dead wrong.

Most students need a good overview of the applications of mathematics instead of the constant barrage of the mechanical processes of the subject that often make up the lessons in most "college prep" courses. Instead of Calculus, most students would be far better served by taking a good solid course in probability and statistics before graduating, if for no other reason so they have a better chance of spotting the swindlers who understand the subject better than they do (such as the lottery commission).