Steven D. Levitt: "Modern High School Math Should be About Data Science — Not Algebra 2"
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Here’s a good oped in the L.A. Times from Steven “Freakonomics” Levitt and a co-author:

Opinion: Modern high school math should be about data science — not Algebra 2

OCT. 23, 2019 3 AM

Thanks to the information revolution, a stunning 90% of the data created by humanity has been generated in just the past two years.

Is this true?

That sounds like it very much depends upon your definition of “data.”

So if, say, a copy of every phone call is now being saved in the federal government’s Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center (a.k.a., Utah Data Center), which was finished last May at a cost of $1.5 billion, then it’s data, whereas before phone calls weren’t data because they weren’t being saved except in the memories of the participants?

This is a rather epistemological debate, but my guess is that the amount of data created increases about as fast as the global population, while the amount of data saved is growing rapidly.

Yet the math taught in U.S. schools hasn’t materially changed since Sputnik was sent into orbit in the late 1950s. Our high school students are taught algebra, geometry, a second year of algebra, and calculus (for the most advanced students) because Eisenhower-era policymakers believed this curriculum would produce the best rocket scientists to work on projects during the Cold War.

My dad used calculus at his first airplane engineering job after graduating from Pasadena City College, but he didn’t use it in his subsequent 40 year career at Lockheed. He remembered it fine 38 years after last studying it, helping me with my calculus homework in 1975.

On the other hand, some guys at Lockheed used calculus, such as Denys Overholser, one of the Lockheed employees who used Soviet mathematician Petr Ufimtsev's highly theoretical work to design the Stealth Fighter, which helped terrify the Soviets into making Gorbachev their leader. But at my dad’s less lofty level, engineers didn’t use calculus.

… We surveyed 900 “Freakonomics” podcast listeners — a pretty nerdy group, we must admit — and discovered that less than 12% used any algebra, trigonometry or calculus in their daily lives. Only 2% use integrals or derivatives, the foundational building blocks of calculus. In contrast, a whopping 66% work with basic analytical software like Microsoft Excel on a daily basis.

When was the last time you divided a polynomial? If you were asked to do so today, would you remember how? For the most part, students are no longer taught to write cursive, how to use a slide rule, or any number of things that were once useful in everyday life. Let’s put working out polynomial division using pencil and paper on the same ash heap as sock darning and shorthand.

Well, maybe. On the other hand, it’s really important to find the small percentage of people, such as Denys Overholser and his math wizard Bill Schroeder, who can do this kind of math well. Our current system of obsessing over continuous math probably does a pretty good job of finding those who can do continuous math well.

Discrete math is, in my view, easier. I needed my dad’s help with calculus homework, but I was good at statistics.

What we propose is as obvious as it is radical: to put data and its analysis at the center of high school mathematics. Every high school student should graduate with an understanding of data, spreadsheets, and the difference between correlation and causality. Moreover, teaching students to make data-based arguments will endow them with many of the same critical-thinking skills they are learning today through algebraic proofs, but also give them more practical skills for navigating our newly data-rich world.

I’ve got some critical-thinking skills, as Dr. Levitt discovered in 1999 (here’s our debate in Slate over his theory that legalizing abortion cut crime; interestingly, Slate has since stripped our names from their debate and only attributes it to “By Authors”: but anyway, here is Levitt’s opening, my opening, his response, my response). Personally, I haven’t noticed that society really wants to encourage critical thinking.

But I do it anyway. It’s fun.

Data-based math courses allow students to grapple with real-life problems. They might analyze issues about the environment, space travel or nutrition. Students can examine the threat of wildfires or the ways social media is tracking their data, learning how to apply math to real-world issues.

For this revolution to be carried out across the country, decision makers will need to hear from parents and other interested parties who recognize that our children deserve math instruction that is relevant to their lives.

I quite agree, but I recall reading an article in the L.A. Times around 1981 arguing for the same thing, so I don’t expect rapid change.

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