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What if All Students Were Proficient in Mathematics?

Updated on
Modified on June 22, 2023
  • Algebra
  • Math
  • Math Intervention


I was traveling in Tokyo when I found myself in Ueno Station looking for the right train. Millions of people pass through this station each day. Much to my surprise, a young man in a green coat tapped me on the shoulder and asked in modest English, “May I help you?” He did, and I was on my way.

Hours later, I passed through the same spot, returning to my hotel. Confused again about which train to take, I got the same tap on my shoulder from the same young man. I was directed to the right train. As I walked away, it occurred to me that this young man—like so many Japanese high school graduates—likely studied higher mathematics, even calculus. For what? So he could do this?

There is a common tendency today to link higher math standards for our students with the kind of achievement we see in other countries. A complementary thread is to link high standards in math to the broad trends in our ever-changing, information economy. Automation is everywhere, and artificial intelligence is on the rise. High school students with only a basic understanding of mathematics don’t stand a chance against machines. High standards proponents commonly refer to our marquee industries such as finance, information technology, engineering, and biomedicine to reinforce the idea that mathematics is a gateway to a successful career. By implication, we need to ensure all students are proficient in this discipline. But, is this the case?

Look at the distribution of jobs in our current economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) categorizes major occupational groups as a way of understanding and projecting current and future employment. The most easily identifiable, math-intensive professions (business and financial operations, computer and mathematics, architecture, and engineering; life, physical, and social science) comprise only 10.5 percent of today’s workforce. That’s data for 2016. What about the future?

The same BLS data capture the fastest growing occupations in the country. Three math intensive professions stand out—software development and application developers, information security analysts, and statisticians. Yet, of the 11.5 million new jobs that will appear by 2026, these categories only comprise 2.6 percent of the fastest-growing occupations. In contrast, the top three non-intensive math careers—personal care aides, medical assistants, and home health aides—will comprise 12 percent of the new jobs. These are decidedly non-quantitative careers, and they rely far more on interpersonal and communication skills. At best, these types of workers need to record data accurately.

Making sense of the role of mathematics in the workforce—today or in the near future—is fraught with problems. The BLS categories only roughly describe the connection between mathematical knowledge and a career. Nonetheless, many have documented how most adults use math in their daily work. More than 90 percent of the labor force does not require anything that amounts to Algebra II or higher. Instead, most workers confront the kind of knowledge that is at the center of middle school mathematics as it is described in the Common Core—proportional reasoning, rates, and basic statistics. This kind of knowledge also spills into everyday life.

What does all of this imply, particularly in a changing world where data and computing power (and applications of that power) are increasing at a torrential rate?

First, any suggestion that we return to the status quo of the previous century (e.g., a foundation in “the basics” is sufficient for most citizens) is utterly misplaced. Mathematical knowledge applies to more than work. It is increasingly important to our everyday lives from key financial decisions to our health to the growing effects of climate change. All citizens need to know more mathematics.

Second, even the observation that most adults rely on what is now considered “middle school mathematics” has significant implications. An alarming number of adults struggle with basic concepts in probability, common statistical concepts such as variance, and proportional change such as percent increase and decrease. This knowledge needs to be strengthened, particularly in nonroutine problem-solving tasks.

Third, the future is unpredictable. The use of data trickles into occupations in unexpected ways. Changes in manufacturing are the best example, where many workers need higher levels of mathematics to work alongside a growing body of robots and computers.

Finally, there is the less publicized and far from romantic fact that many of the occupational categories in the BLS data require success in subjects such as college algebra to obtain any number of credentials or degrees in today’s world. This is in spite of the fact that these same individuals may never use this knowledge on a day-to-day basis. 

This last point cannot be mentioned enough. College-bound students often take courses in precalculus, calculus, and/or statistics to enhance their chances of being accepted to competitive universities. This coursework also helps their performance on the SAT. There also is a good chance many of these students will need to succeed in some kind of statistics coursework as part of a college major. 

On the other hand, students who are not on the college-bound track—particularly those who struggle with mathematics—need careful and consistent guidance about the role subjects like Algebra II play in their immediate futures. These students need to understand that rather than being a gateway to success, mathematics can be a gatekeeper. Failure rates in beginning algebra at most community colleges approach 60 percent. Passing this course often is essential for those who want to be medical technicians, machine maintenance and repair operators, construction managers, or low-level accountants. The truth is that well-paying jobs such as these are highly competitive. Math often is a simple screening mechanism for measuring who gets to the next step in these career paths.

Thus, the work we need to do with our struggling secondary students is twofold. The first part is to build continuous success in mathematics so that it leads to a passing grade in college algebra. Optimally, these students would continue on to community college or trade schools immediately following high school so the math they have learned is not lost. Another option would be some kind of “college in the high school” version of algebra. But the second area of work is motivational. It is a classic issue of utility. In other words, struggling high school students need to learn the long-term benefits of subjects like Algebra II. It’s not about the math, it’s about the career. In all likelihood, this may be the best answer to the common refrain, “When am I ever going to use this stuff?”

I'll be exploring this topic in more depth during my webinar, "What If Everyone Excelled in Math" on December 4th. You can register here.

About the Author
Dr. John Woodward
Dr. John Woodward
Author of TransMath®

Dr. John Woodward is a nationally recognized mathematics author, writer, and speaker. He is the past dean of the school of education and professor emeritus at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA.

As a researcher, he focused on mathematics interventions for academically low-achieving students, particularly in elementary and middle grades. Dr. Woodward has published more than 80 articles and presented on mathematics education issues throughout the U.S., as well as in Canada, Asia, and Europe. He is the senior author of TransMath, a math intervention program for middle school students. He also is the co-developer of NUMBERS, a math professional development program for K–8 teachers.

Learn more about Dr. John Woodward