What's the right age to quit maths?

By Holly Honderich
BBC News, Washington

  • Published
Young boy leans against chalkboardImage source, Imgorthand

Unlike in many other countries, young people in the US must take maths until they leave school. Now arts students in New York are staging a rebellion over it. So what is the right time to quit studying maths?

Does a young Jennifer Aniston need to understand geometry? Should the next Nicki Minaj have to study calculus?

Some of the students at LaGuardia, the high school that inspired the movie Fame - of which both Aniston and Minaj are alumna - say no.

"At the Fame school you shouldn't have to sacrifice your art to take another math class," says Macy McGrail, a drama major at the Fiorello H LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.

"I want to pursue my art."

Image source, Getty Images/Twitter, courtesy CZARINAnyc
Image caption,
Yearbook photos of LaGuardia alumni, Jennifer Aniston and Nicki Minaj

The LaGuardia students say they respect their school's "dual mission" of preparing students in both the arts and academics.

But their concerns point to a wider conversation surrounding the value of maths for students heading in non-academic directions.

Algebra is the branch of maths where symbols, rather than numbers, are used in arithmetical operations. It is a common thread in almost all mathematics.

Geometry examines the shape of individual objects, spatial relationships among various objects, and the properties of the surrounding space.

Calculus is the study of continuous change and motion.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Andrew Hacker a political science professor of more than 45 years at Queens College, writes that a typical American school day finds "six million high school students and two million college freshman struggling with algebra".

And this forced struggle with maths, Prof Hacker says, "is not just stupid, it's cruel".

Prof Hacker, who expands on this view in his book The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions, describes himself as a "numbers person". But most people, he claims, are not.

"There are about 7% of human beings who have a kind of natural aptitude for math," he notes. "For the rest, it's sheer torture, for no purpose."

And the particular fear and loathing inspired by algebra may have consequences.

Image source, Krisnina Magpantay
Image caption,
Students and parents protest at LaGuardia

One in five high school students drops out before getting a diploma in the US - failing maths is the single biggest academic reason given.

"The same thing is true with college," Prof Hacker says, adding that there are thousands of Americans without a high school or college diploma, simply because they were forced to take quadratics.

Current guidelines demand that every young American study geometry and trigonometry, plus two years of algebra. This isn't the universal norm. Prof Hacker notes several European countries, like the UK, Germany and France, allow students to opt out of maths at around the age of 16.

And in the United States, mandatory maths is not necessarily paying off. Internationally, US students continue to rank around the middle of the pack on maths scores, as well as for reading and science.

Not everyone agrees you need a maths brain to see its value.

Dimitri Shlyakhtenko, the director of pure and applied mathematics at California's UCLA, earned his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley at age 22.

He argues the problem is not with maths, but how it is taught.

"Calculus in and of itself is an incredibly stupid thing," Prof Shlyakhtenko says.

But if you see maths as a style of thinking instead of the memorisation of times tables, he adds, it becomes "a life skill that enables everything."

"Math has moved from a sort of obscure thing to a thing that is ever present."

As society becomes more "artisan", Prof Shlyakhtenko notes, with more people - especially artists - working for themselves, "you need to understand your own budget, your own cash flow".

A staggering number of bad consumer decisions, he argues, are the product of underdeveloped maths skills.

How does the US measure up?

The latest Programme for International Student Assessment rankings - one of the largest global comparisons of academic ability - placed the US at 38 out of 71 countries in maths. It scores below the OECD average and lags behind countries like Singapore, Estonia, Vietnam and the UK.

But the rankings don't provide a clear answer on the best age to abandon algebra.

Students in Singapore - which sits at the top of the PISA maths rankings - can choose to focus on humanities for their A-level exams, but are still required to study either maths or at least one science until they leave school.

But Germany, France and the UK - all of which rank ahead of the US by at least 11 spots - favour more voluntary models. Students can quit maths around age 16, opting for subjects in the humanities instead.

So what's the answer for students, like those at LaGuardia, who still can't stand it?

Sandra Nagy is the director of learning at Future Design School, a Toronto-based company that works with schools and teachers throughout the US and Canada to develop curricula encouraging skill building and experiential learning.

Ms Nagy agrees with Prof Shlyakhtenko that most of maths' issues stem from how it is taught: as an abstract and inapplicable concept.

"We're not making it relevant to [students] so they're dismissing themselves as math-brained or not," she says. "It's confidence detracting for kids to think that way."

When students ask their teachers why they're learning something, "the answer shouldn't be 'you just need to know it'", she adds. The impetus is on schools to give them an answer.

Image source, Thos Robinson/Getty Images
Image caption,
Students at LaGuardia at a performance in 2014

Ms Nagy cites basic financial literacy as a prime example of maths' worth. But she also stressed the lasting importance of persevering through difficult subjects.

There is value, she says, in asking an innately gifted cellist to study something that does not come quite so naturally.

So even for a future Academy Award winner, there may still be a place for maths.

"I'm not sure that all kids need to take advanced calculus or linear algebra," Ms Nagy notes.

"[But] if they're going to become the next most successful actor or singer they're going to need to figure out how to count their money."