Carolyn Crosby – Achieving the math skills that matter

Some high school math courses are very meaningful to specific career paths. Engineers need calculus, economists need analytical geometry and I am not sure who needs discrete geometry. But let’s consider the vast majority of career pathways. What math is most important to most careers? And are we ensuring that our students are achieving the math skills that matter?

I began teaching high school math in 1998, during the last year of the previous curriculum. I taught from the same textbooks I used in high school and was handed a course teaching guide that outlined every chapter to teach and every question to assign. I would later find it ironic how chapter 3 – where students develop their conceptual understanding of math – was omitted from the outline.The chapters that followed would teach students how to develop procedural fluency – a teaching philosophy where students do not need to understand what they are doing; they just have to do it.

During my second year of teaching, the new math curriculum rolled out. The irony was that chapter 3 from the old curriculum became the focus of the new curriculum. The entire grade 9 applied and academic math courses could be taught through exploring relationships. Students needed to gain conceptual understanding before proceeding to procedural fluency of math skills. As I started exploring this new curriculum, I finally saw the beauty of math, the understanding of all that procedural fluency. It is the union of conceptual and procedural understanding that makes math make sense.

It is a beautiful curriculum (to someone who loves math) if one wishes to extend learning to more abstract concepts – but the depth to which we teach these concepts is often not necessary for many students’ career pathways.

How many people use linear and quadratic concepts on a daily basis in their job? Not many. The math needed in most careers includes fractions, decimals, percentages, ratios, rates and formulas – foundational math skills that are the focus of our elementary curriculum and should be achieved by grade 8. However, some students have not mastered these concepts by then and they will likely struggle through the curriculum, failing to achieve mastery of both the abstract curriculum and the foundational math skills so needed in many career pathways. And in the current curriculum of our high school applied math programs there is not time for re-teaching of foundational math skills even though most college programs require their mastery.

As a result, colleges are now creating entire preparatory college math courses that focus on skills from the elementary curriculum. It is inexcusable that college students would have to pay for a college math prep course that focuses on elementary math after four years of high school math. We need to take a closer look at our high school curriculum and decide what is most important for future careers, especially in the high school pathways that lead to college programs. Do our high school math courses actually prepare most students for their future careers or do these courses only prepare a small segment of our high school population? It’s a question that deserves more conversation.

Carolyn Crosby is a math teacher at St. Luke Catholic High School in Smiths Falls, Ontario.

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