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In 1992, when Teen Talk Barbie told young girls, “Math class is tough!,” the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics as well as the American Association of University Women had no empathy for Mattel toys. They got the airhead doll recalled, rightly arguing that suggesting fashion model dolls don’t take to math had the potential to persuade otherwise bright young girls that math wasn’t for them, either. (Mattel did the right thing, and Teen Talk Barbie is quite the collector’s item today.)
But the struggle continues, and it is not only young women who suffer when math requirements and standards in high school and college are weak.
To its credit, the California State University system (CSU) recently proposed a new requirement that incoming students take an additional quantitative reasoning course in high school, in addition to the current requirements of algebra I, geometry and algebra II. CSU properly dreams big by demanding greater quantitative literacy from California youth, but the response has been largely negative.
Critics have argued that the proposed rule change would hurt already weak diversity numbers. Currently, only 30% of African American students in California public schools meet CSU’s quantitative reasoning requirement. Critics worry that the new requirement could bring the number down to 22%, as many public schools in low-income areas are ill-equipped to offer more rigorous mathematics courses.
Dr. George Andrews, Evan Pugh University Professor in Mathematics at Pennsylvania State University and former president of the American Mathematical Society, however, understands diversity in a far more democratic way. He writes, “We live in an era of rapid scientific and technological advancement that is based on mathematics. It is shortsighted to believe that strengthening mathematics standards decreases diversity. If we water down standards, we diminish the chances for everyone to succeed in technical or scientific careers. Increasing diversity in failure is in no one’s best interest.”
The way forward is higher standards for everyone. It is not easy, but CSU, which has an enrollment that tops 484,000, is hardly unaware of the challenges associated with increasing academic rigor and has been making a good faith effort to get California’s public schools up to speed. The proposed rule change will not have an impact on applicants until the incoming class of 2026, and CSU has promised $10 million to help train public school math teachers. If executed well, the new requirement could help raise academic standards at CSU and prioritize quantitative reasoning—a skill that is badly needed in today’s job market and one which increases the potential to be hired and advance in a career.
On that score, the voice of employers is clear. In a July 2018 Hart Research Associates survey, 54% of business executives deemed the ability to work with numbers and statistics a very important quality for employees, but only 36% found college graduates to be well-prepared to meet this challenge. This gap has been a persistent problem. In The Conference Board’s 2006 report, Are They Really Ready to Work?, of the nearly 300 business leaders surveyed, only 18% found recently hired four-year graduates to have excellent math skills; 70% found them adequate; and 12% found them deficient. This is hardly a recipe for success in an intensely competitive global marketplace—especially considering that the United States scores surprisingly poorly, behind Russia and Estonia, on international tests of Millennial numeracy and literacy among OECD nations.
Not just in California, but overall, American education needs to get serious about addressing the weakness in quantitative skills among high school and college students. Too many in higher education are reluctant to demand rigorous quantitative reasoning requirements. What Will They Learn?, an annual survey assessing core curriculum requirements at colleges across the nation, found that 43% of schools do not require all students in their Arts & Sciences baccalaureate degree programs to take a college-level math class.
So it is encouraging to see CSU channeling the energy of the late Jaime Escalante, the famous calculus teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, who was depicted in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. Mr. Escalante emphasized mathematics as liberation for under-privileged youth. As a universal language, he felt that math provides a unique means of social mobility. Mastery in mathematics is objective and undeniable; disadvantaged students who hone the discipline are the ones most likely to shatter social barriers.
Rod Paige, former United States Secretary of Education, expressed deep frustration at the status quo and those who protect it. He lamented the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and encouraged educators to “let go of the myths and perceptions about who can learn and who can’t.” One can only hope that CSU’s leadership stays the course and sees through its quantitative reasoning proposal.
And everyone else should watch Stand and Deliver, and avoid playing with Teen Talk Barbie.