Alison Yin/EdSource
In data science classes, students write computer programs to help analyze large sets of data.

High school math, and algebra, in particular, is in crisis. Although some students thrive on the pathway to calculus, most do not. Algebra I is the single most failed course in American high schools. Thirty-three percent of students in California, for example, took Algebra I at least twice during their high school careers. And students of color or those experiencing poverty are overrepresented in this group.

Some argue that algebra as part of the pathway to calculus is less and less relevant in today’s world and that students would be better served by taking fewer courses in algebra and more in fields such as statistics and data science. The University of California, for example, has ruled that statistics and data science courses can be taken in place of Algebra 2 to meet its admission requirements.

Others push back against this approach, arguing that high-level participation in careers in science, technology, engineering and math will, ultimately, require calculus, and that luring students away from Algebra 2 and into data science will cut them off from these career opportunities, including jobs in data science! Furthermore, many worry that students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are at greater risk of failing Algebra I, will be those most likely to be tracked into these alternative math pathways, and thus more likely to be lost from the STEM pipeline.

Students should not be forced to choose between math courses that are more engaging, relevant and modern (the data science path) and those that give them opportunities to study the math they will need if they wish to pursue STEM-related careers (the calculus path). All students could benefit from learning about statistics, data science and coding. But if they plan to work in data science, or in other STEM-related fields, they also will need a deep understanding of algebra.

Arguments about what content should be included in high school mathematics fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room: We haven’t yet figured out how to teach the concepts of algebra well to most students.

Many students who pass Algebra 1 do not master the content in sufficient depth to prepare them for Algebra 2, much less higher-level STEM courses. And many students who do well enough in algebra find it boring and not relevant to their own lives. Students cannot be faulted for their lack of interest in learning about the “steps” required to solve for X or dumb acronyms like FOIL (a mnemonic to help students remember how to factor polynomials). This view of what algebra is cannot sustain most students’ motivation to pursue STEM-related careers.

Data science is not an alternative to algebra; in fact, it very well may be the key to figuring out how to teach algebra well. High school algebra, in our view, desperately needs data science, a catch-all term for the quantitative reasoning and mathematical ideas that go into working with data collected in the real world. Data science has the potential to make algebra relevant and interesting for students who want to understand and improve the world. Data science may be the best answer we have to the question most often asked by high school algebra students: How will I ever use this?

But just as algebra needs data science, data science needs algebra. The basic functions taught in high school algebra (e.g., linear, polynomial, etc.) are used to model patterns in data. We have been pursuing this possibility by developing a statistics and data science curriculum for high school and early college that emphasizes concepts core to both algebra and data science: functions and modeling. Our students don’t learn about functions as mathematical abstractions, but they use them as imperfect models that can help us understand and predict variation in the world.

Whereas in math, functions can make exact predictions, in data science the predictions are almost always wrong; models always have error. The reason this is true is that real data is always messier than the world of pure mathematics. It is this messiness, however, that draws students in. Finally, they see how functions that bored them in theory can help them to make better (even if not perfect) predictions in real contexts. They learn that imperfect models are better than no model at all.

We teach our students about linear functions. But they often ask whether other functions exist to model more complex patterns in data, such as curves. Teachers are thrilled that students want to learn about exponential, logarithmic, and polynomial functions, which many students were previously exposed to without realizing their value.  Students become hungry to learn some algebra!

Imagine a world where students feel a need for algebraic functions rather than feeling forced to learn them by the so-called “math people.” Imagine a generation of students who think an exponential function might be helpful for them to learn. If algebra can embrace data science and data science can do the same for algebra, we can all look forward to a world where students feel dissatisfied with their current knowledge and want to learn more math.

•••

Ji Y. Son is a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. James W. Stigler is a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA. They research how students learn in complex domains, and are co-founders of CourseKata.org, a statistics and data science curriculum used by high schools and colleges.

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  1. Alicia 13 hours ago13 hours ago

    Strongly agree! Algebra is critical to understanding data science. Let’s not encourage a false dichotomy, but rather ground both subjects in project-based work and narratives that help students apply the concepts in real world scenarios.

  2. Jeff 1 day ago1 day ago

    What a wonderful initiative!

  3. Mariel 1 day ago1 day ago

    Great ideas! Framing algebra within the context of data science would make it a lot more appealing to many career-focused students; it’s essentially a practical application of the theory using meaningful examples.

  4. Tom 1 day ago1 day ago

    Agreed!

  5. Jane 1 day ago1 day ago

    Great piece! As a non-math person, I wish I had had more opportunities to learn how math matters in the everyday – maybe I would’ve enjoyed it more.

  6. Han 1 day ago1 day ago

    Interesting take! I find algebra so essential– even without taking into statistics.

  7. B612 1 day ago1 day ago

    Great article! The title says it all. As a parent and a college professor, I have seen firsthand how contextualized instruction makes teaching and learning more relevant, effective and fun! If we want to engage students, especially those who are furthest from educational justice, to see the value and relevance of learning polynomials to their everyday lives, we must consider how to teach these concepts more effectively and move away from the false dichotomy.

  8. Jessica 1 day ago1 day ago

    Absolutely. My high school teacher used to say that math wasn’t education. It was training, until students learned to apply it. Once students see how math works in the real world, then it informs how they view the world. It is education. This proposal moves high school math away from being mere training to becoming a true education.

  9. Daphne 1 day ago1 day ago

    Great perspective! I do believe it’s more just math. It’s the logic behind it and understand data. The future of the corporate America does rely on data science a lot more than before. So yes to algebra!!

  10. Robert Morrison 1 day ago1 day ago

    Well done Ji Son and Jim. Those of us teaching STEM at the college level, like you, would love to see a deep understanding of both basic math and applied math and statistics in our students. I think integrating these approaches in ways that really engage students and help them to understand why basic math concepts are critical is a great way to go.

  11. Julie 1 day ago1 day ago

    Really important work! Keep it up!

  12. Sam SB 2 days ago2 days ago

    This encourages my thoughts on education for future generations. I wish the melding of the two had been a topic while I was in school. I absolutely was one of the students who took Algebra passed and didn't connect the dots on how it could serve a greater purpose. Although, I was a straight A student up through my junior year in college, I very much memorized equations without really understanding their real-world application. To … Read More

    This encourages my thoughts on education for future generations. I wish the melding of the two had been a topic while I was in school. I absolutely was one of the students who took Algebra passed and didn’t connect the dots on how it could serve a greater purpose. Although, I was a straight A student up through my junior year in college, I very much memorized equations without really understanding their real-world application. To further support the statistic, I was first in my family.to go to college here in the states and first to get a degree – and no, I didn’t pursue a career in STEM.

  13. Dave K. 2 days ago2 days ago

    I’m not a math person, but this kind of creative connection that brings out curiosity would have done wonders for me in engaging math better as a student. The acronyms were helpful but dumb in the sense that I got caught up in the steps but never learned the whole point of the larger concepts. As a former LAUSD educator it’s encouraging to know that we don’t always have to add another expectation … Read More

    I’m not a math person, but this kind of creative connection that brings out curiosity would have done wonders for me in engaging math better as a student. The acronyms were helpful but dumb in the sense that I got caught up in the steps but never learned the whole point of the larger concepts.

    As a former LAUSD educator it’s encouraging to know that we don’t always have to add another expectation but we can integrate them to work more meaningfully in tandem.

  14. Mixhael 2 days ago2 days ago

    I am a high school algebra/geometry/trig teacher with 36 years experience in the classroom … Stop forcing everyone to take algebra … Some kids brains don’t think that way …

  15. Robert L Crawford 2 days ago2 days ago

    Sanity returns. Learn more math and you will enjoy math! I love the connections the author makes between math and statistics/data science. Those are exciting. However, I do believe that we do know how to teach mathematics successfully. Just ask the high level mathematicians and STEM professionals that have been able to attend the strong schools and AP programs that have turned out the best STEM professionals in the world, right here in the good old USA.

  16. Andrew Dempsey 3 days ago3 days ago

    Algebra deals with the infrastructure of mathematics. How to move things around, how to manipulate information/phrases, how to change it from one form to another. Algebra is a base language of mathematics necessary to understand and work with higher level math languages/systems. It’s use is baked into almost all the other maths, including the myths used in computer science and coding. You would be absolutely hamstrung without it. Which isn’t to say that you couldn’t get away … Read More

    Algebra deals with the infrastructure of mathematics. How to move things around, how to manipulate information/phrases, how to change it from one form to another. Algebra is a base language of mathematics necessary to understand and work with higher level math languages/systems. It’s use is baked into almost all the other maths, including the myths used in computer science and coding.

    You would be absolutely hamstrung without it.

    Which isn’t to say that you couldn’t get away with not learning it. But why skip something that makes later efforts easier?

  17. Maite Villareal Rodriguez 3 days ago3 days ago

    Never thought about this “false choice” before but it makes sense – reminds me of conversations we used to have in education regarding tracking and who gets set up for lower wage jobs vs who gets prepared for college and beyond. I like the idea that if Algebra is taught better, we don’t have to choose.

  18. Joanne Burton 3 days ago3 days ago

    My 3rd grade grandson cannot do multiplication, I'm teaching him the multiplication table memorization on zoom calls once his mom and he told me this isn't taught in his school! He's also struggle with division - not a surprise! until he learns his multiplication table, division doesn't make sense, then, algebra will be a struggle. Our schools are failing our kids with this "Kooky math" they are teaching. They will figure this out … Read More

    My 3rd grade grandson cannot do multiplication, I’m teaching him the multiplication table memorization on zoom calls once his mom and he told me this isn’t taught in his school! He’s also struggle with division – not a surprise! until he learns his multiplication table, division doesn’t make sense, then, algebra will be a struggle.

    Our schools are failing our kids with this “Kooky math” they are teaching. They will figure this out in a few years when all our kids cannot figure out algebra; just like they are now figuring out kids can’t read so they are going back to teaching “Phonics” – wait a minute, isn’t that how I learned to read back in the 1960’s?

  19. Doug S 3 days ago3 days ago

    Great article.

    This was a really interesting point: “But just as algebra needs data science, data science needs algebra.”

    I wonder what the next step would be? The authors mention they are pursuing a stats/data science curriculum so it would be interesting to learn more about that.

  20. Jim 3 days ago3 days ago

    What makes FOIL (First, Outer, Inner, and Last) a “dumb acronym”? Otherwise this is just an advertisement.