CREDIT: Kate Sept / iStock

They make up less than one percent of Los Angeles Unified’s high school students, but one day they may discover they helped break through a long-standing barrier to educational opportunity for students in Los Angeles and beyond.

Pamela Burdman

Pamela Burdman

These students, about a thousand juniors and seniors, are collecting, analyzing and interpreting sets of data from their own lives. In the process, they are learning basic statistics and computer programming, not to mention gaining insights into things like their stress levels and snacking habits. “Big data” is not just transforming the way we live and conduct business; it also offers approaches to learning math that can engage students and open doors.

The students are taking a new course, Introduction to Data Science, that UCLA researchers found is fostering critical thinking skills, data awareness and positive attitudes. The course rests at the vanguard of a quiet revolt against the dominance of algebra in the high school curriculum, a revolt that could reshape the pathway to college for years to come.

After being piloted four years ago with funding from the National Science Foundation, the course is now being offered at 21 of Los Angeles Unified’s roughly 100 comprehensive high schools. Another six southern California districts are piloting it, with eight more lining up. The exponential growth speaks to the demand for alternative courses like these.

Traditional courses like Algebra 2 that students have needed to get into college too often are taught in ways that leave course-takers feeling discouraged and left out. That, in turn, contributes to the lack of racial and gender diversity in many technical fields. New course offerings in areas like statistics, computer science and even social justice mathematics present new ways to engage students. At the same time, they can foster the quantitative literacy — or competency with numerical data — that math courses are intended to provide. These new approaches have the potential to improve equity and ensure that quantitative literacy is a right, not a privilege.

Just a few years ago, the idea of offering a statistics class as an alternative to Algebra 2 would have been hard to imagine. The traditional sequence of Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2 has long been a cornerstone of the middle school-to-high school curriculum. A stepping stone to Calculus, the three-course sequence has traditionally been required by most universities — including the California State University and the University of California — for admission. In many states (and in some California districts), it is also required for high school graduation.

Algebra 2 therefore acts as a gatekeeper. It’s a foundation for students seeking to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields that require mastery of Calculus. But it can also block students from advancing in their education, regardless of whether they are interested in STEM careers or not.

At Los Angeles Unified, most students taking Introduction to Data Science have already completed Algebra 2, but about a third take it in lieu of an Algebra 2 course. At least three developments helped make this dramatic change possible.

First, the Common Core State Standards, adopted in California eight years ago, take a more expansive view of high school math. Besides algebra and geometry, the Common Core includes an emphasis on statistics, thus recognizing the relevance of data analysis in the 21st century.

The standards also stress a set of math “practices” like sense-making, abstract reasoning, modeling and precision — skills students can learn through statistics at least as well as through algebra. And they introduce the notion of teaching math via different “pathways,” affording schools the freedom to rearrange material, such as integrating algebra, geometry and statistics.

A second factor is that higher ed institutions, responding to the data science revolution and burgeoning student demand, have been broadening their definitions of what it means to be competent in math. A few years ago, after half of its freshman class signed up for introductory statistics and two-thirds for computer science, UC Berkeley developed a data literacy course. The course, which meets Berkeley’s math graduation requirement, became the fastest growing course in campus history.

Similarly, the California State University system last year dropped a placement test it was using to determine whether students needed remedial algebra classes even though they may have passed Algebra 2 in high school. As of this fall, CSU will no longer require admitted students to prove their proficiency in algebra, though Algebra 2 is still required for admission.

The third condition for the expansion of the data science class to more high schools relates to that admissions requirement. Algebra 2 is part of the “A-G” course pattern that both UC and CSU require for freshman admission. Statistics is not. Under the A-G guidelines, though, statistics “validates” Algebra 2. That means it confers Algebra 2 credit, even though statistics courses cover only a little Algebra 2. So a student who successfully passes a statistics course like Introduction to Data Science can be eligible for admission even if he or she never took a course named Algebra 2. The A-G status granted the course immediate credibility. About two-thirds of students in the class have already taken Algebra 2 and one-third take it in lieu of Algebra 2.

Statistics is not the only area to begin encroaching on algebra’s territory, as education leaders and policy makers realize there are multiple ways for students to develop quantitative literacy.

Last year, Ohio high schools began allowing advanced computer science courses to replace Algebra 2. States such as Virginia and Tennessee are incorporating courses in financial literacy for high school students.

These new courses are promising ways of open up avenues for more students to succeed in math, but it’s essential that they do so without closing doors to STEM and other lucrative fields.

It’s time to start using mathematics to help students move forward, not to hold them back.


Pamela Burdman is the founder of Just Equations, a project of the Opportunity Institute to reconceptualize the role of mathematics in ensuring educational opportunity.

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  1. mr isaac 5 years ago5 years ago

    Is it an accident that 80% of the students pictured are black? No. While I applaud LAUSD for diversifying the math track, the truth is black kids need to know Algebra 2. Not knowing Algebra 2 will hurt these kids later in college statistics, computer science, economics…and many other courses. Math mastery in elementary school is key. That is not happening in LAUSD or anywhere nationally.


    • Corey 2 years ago2 years ago

      Mr. Isaac, consider that UC Berkeley now accepts this course as an alternative to Algebra 2, and that Data Science is tremendously valuable in and of itself. Students who can analyze big data have more to offer society than students who can solve rational polynomials by hand.

  2. Katherine Stevenson 5 years ago5 years ago

    The author only mentions only one of LAUSD's interventions, the data science class, and ignores other interventions including the largest and most versatile one. Currently LAUSD has 1800 students in over 45 classes taking a course called Transition to College Math and Statistics (TCMS). This class takes a broad view of mathematics preparation by putting both algebra and beginning statistics into contexts that are both real and relevant to student's lives. Following this … Read More

    The author only mentions only one of LAUSD’s interventions, the data science class, and ignores other interventions including the largest and most versatile one. Currently LAUSD has 1800 students in over 45 classes taking a course called Transition to College Math and Statistics (TCMS). This class takes a broad view of mathematics preparation by putting both algebra and beginning statistics into contexts that are both real and relevant to student’s lives. Following this course a student is ready to proceed at the college level as a non-STEM major or to enter into the pre-calculus STEM pathway.

    The course is offered as part of a collaboration with California State University, Northridge and its enrollment grew more than three fold in the last year. Most TCMS students have a C or better in Algebra 2 prior to taking the class. However, TCMS does validate Algebra 2. The agreement with CSUN has been to avoid using TCMS as an preemptive evasion of Algebra 2 but rather to use TCMS to validate Algebra 2 for students who struggled in Algebra 2 and need to consolidate those skills in a different context with a more engaging pedagogy.


    • Pamela Burdman 5 years ago5 years ago

      Hi Kate – Great comment. You’re absolutely right that all of these approaches need to be studied so that we can understand how to best keep opportunities open for students, including the amount of algebra grounding students need for success in college.

  3. Trish Williams, member CA State Board of Education 5 years ago5 years ago

    Great article. I totally support the development of these kinds of rigorous math rich but nontraditional options in place or or in addition to algebra 2. Not only more engaging and clearly relevant to today’s world, but this particular Data Science project’s approach will also graduate students more aware of and knowledgeable about themselves and their own “data.”

  4. Louis Freedberg 5 years ago5 years ago

    This seems like a hugely important innovation. I wonder however where/whether the schools are able to find the teachers they need to teach these courses. Preparing the next generation of teachers to do so is a challenge California will have no choice but to take on.