Nils Ahbel of Deerfield Academy gave a thought provoking presentation at the 2011 Anja S. Greer Conference on Secondary School Mathematics (held at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH) on the history and potential future of the American High School mathematics curriculum. The Prezi that he used to illustrate his talk can be found here.
As I recall, his core points about the state of things today were that:
– our curriculum has remained largely unchanged for 119 years (witness the content of the textbook whose pages fill the number 8 in his prezi).
– the current goal of most high school curricula is to prepare students to take calculus, yet only around 8% of the student population ever seems to (eventually) pass a calculus course.
– as a society, we consistently depict mathematics and other quantitative topics as being un-intelligible, obscure, and/or arcane – yet every student will need to be able to decide for themselves on questions such as: are they on track with their retirement fund? Does data support or refute global warming? Is driving to the airport more or less risky than flying?
He then turned to ideas on how we might change this situtation:
– our syllabi are full. If we wish to add a topic, we almost always have to find one or more topics to drop in exchange.
– Instead of pursuing incremental change, it is more sensible to re-think our curriculum from the ground up. Begin by adding the topics that are most important to the futures of the students we are teaching.
– Calculus is still a useful and needed course of study, particularly for students going into the sciences and engineering, but why prepare 92% of students for a course they are not likely to complete or make use of?
– Exponential equations and statistics are currently and seem likely to continue to be the most relevant topics our students should master .
– The problems that most students will need to understand in this day and age involve: compound interest, present value, population growth, resource depletion, metabolic assimilation rates, descriptive statistics, understanding standard deviation, and supporting arguments with statistics.
Update 7/16/11: Some of these points are not new, as R. Wright pointed out in a comment below. Sheldon P. Gordon wrote about these and related issues in a 2005 paper titled “What’s Wrong With College Algebra?“, which is interesting to read.