Math Is Not Always Equal

Math Is Not Always Equal

There is some real momentum against the tyranny of calculus, and this time the fight is being led by mathematicians.

For years, calculus has been viewed as a proxy for college readiness, and a must-have for students seeking admission to highly selective schools, but a new report from Just Equations, a group dedicated to bringing equitable policies to math education, and the National Association for College Admission Counseling finds that treating calculus as a must have for college is an unnecessary barrier to college admission, as well as quality math education.

The barrier takes a number of different forms. For some students, they were doing well in math, but then hit a calculus wall, torpedoing their grade and any future interest in more math.

For others, their high schools don’t offer calculus, putting them at a disadvantage. Only 19% of students take high school calculus, with significant disparities of access across different socio-economic statuses. 

Setting calculus as a default expectation when many students don’t have access to the course has obvious negative impacts on equity and opportunity.

In reality, according to math experts such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Mathematical Association of America, the vast majority of students don’t need calculus and would benefit from other courses, such as statistics.

Here’s where I admit that the subject gets a little personal for me, as I was one of those students who was thwarted by the calculus track in high school. I started freshman year on track to take calculus as a senior, but once trigonometry arrived on the scene, the wheels on my personal math car flew off. By senior year, the school had practically run out of classes I could take that weren’t a repeat of what I’d already barely passed. 

I got the message; math wasn’t for me. In college, I went to great lengths to avoid any additional math courses, including switching out of a pre-journalism track where math was unavoidable.

Thing is, I would have benefited from more math that wasn’t calculus. In my job as a market research analyst post-grad school, I had to learn statistics on the fly to advance in my position. Unlike calculus, which I still don’t understand what it’s for, statistics made sense to me. I’d been reading sports box scores since third grade, and learning the theory and math underpinning concepts like margin of error or confidence testing came relatively easily.

Technical majors like engineers need calculus, but for most of us, it is a hoop that means little long term, even if we successfully jump through it. For students without access to the hoop, it means fewer opportunities.

The chief motive for taking AP calculus is not love of math, or a recognition that it may be useful in future studies. Eighty-one percent of students surveyed said their primary motivation was because calculus looked good on college applications.

When schooling is divorced from learning in this way, we are in dangerous territory. It is a recipe for disengagement and burnout, and training students to view the courses they take purely through the lens of resume building makes the actual education part of school largely irrelevant. 

Given that neither the experts in mathematics education nor the higher education admission professionals believe that calculus should have such outsized importance, you wonder why something hasn’t been done about this already.

The answer isn’t that mysterious. 

We have a system where everyone — students, schools, etc.— is incentivized to compete for scarce slots at highly selective institutions, even though those institutions serve a tiny minority of post-secondary students. 

(As I often remark, Ohio State serves roughly the same number of undergrads as the entire Ivy League.)

The existence of this barrier is beneficial to the group for whom the barrier is lowest, and the maintenance of that barrier allows for a veneer of meritocracy to cover over the inequities in the system.

Acknowledging that calculus may not be the best path for students not because they’re deficient or less capable, but because they’re simply going to have a different journey, would be a very good step towards organizing education around the principles we claim for it: providing opportunities to all and helping students maximize their individual potentials.