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Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 02:34 PM ET, 08/16/2012

Do the math: Too much calculus?

I don’t want to alarm students who think taking calculus in high school is the key to a brilliant future. But leaders in math education are warning that, in many schools, that course is a mess, causing bright students to forsake, rather than embrace, their dream of a career in math and science.

This is not true for students who take Advanced Placement calculus and score at least a 3 on the 5-point exam, but they make up only a third of the 600,000 students who take high school calculus each year. The rest are in trouble, because colleges don’t know what to do with them.

Ordinary high schools across the country admire the stellar ones, many of them in the Washington area, that have top-notch AP calculus courses. They want STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs for their students, too.

“There is now an expectation that every secondary school should offer AP calculus or its equivalent, with the result that the demand for calculus teachers is outstripping the supply of those who are fully qualified,” said David M. Bressoud of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., a former president of the Mathematical Association of America. “Within our schools, there is tremendous pressure to fill these classes.”

“Too many students are being accelerated, short-changing their preparation in and knowledge of algebra, geometry, trigonometry and other pre-calculus topics. Too many students experience a secondary-school calculus course that drills on the techniques and procedure that will enable them to successfully answer standard problems but are never challenged to encounter and understand the conceptual foundations of calculus,” he said.

Bressoud was chairman of the College Board’s AP Calculus Development Committee from 2002 to 2005 and has just been appointed to its Mathematical Science Academic Advisory Committee. He was one of many mathematicians who encouraged the release of a joint statement in March by the Mathematical Association and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics saying high schools should focus less on calculus and more on establishing “the mathematical foundation that will enable students to pursue whatever course of study interests them when they get to college.”

Instead, students who took high school calculus often find they have to retake college calculus, or even pre-calculus. Many flee to the humanities.

I have enjoyed exchanging e-mails with Bressoud on this issue. He doesn’t mind my scolding him, and his higher education colleagues, for creating the problem and then telling the high schools to go fix it.

College professors love to toss thunderbolts from their ivy heights on how pitifully high schools are preparing students. They don’t seem to recognize that it is the colleges, particularly their course designers and admissions departments, that have the power to change this but so far haven’t gotten around to it.

High schools offer whatever courses colleges say their students need to have to be admitted. One is calculus. Selective university admissions officers love to see it on transcripts. An applicant who isn’t taking calculus often has to explain why, particularly if he or she is interested in a STEM career.

Bressoud knows that. He suggests several ways colleges could help clean up the mess.

“We need tools for assessing student readiness for calculus,” he said, just as the AP calculus exams signal which students are ready for the next level of college math. High schools could use an alternative to calculus that would nurture the conceptual understanding vital to college-level math, he said.

But first colleges must bless such a course so that the students who take it can count on being admitted even if they shun calculus.

By  |  02:34 PM ET, 08/16/2012

 
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