'Freakonomics’ author Steven Levitt, Stanford's Jo Boaler, and other reformers are pushing for more equitable curriculum that better equips students for a data-driven world.
Steven Levitt, like many parents, has spent countless evenings helping his kids with their math homework. Increasingly, his four teenagers’ work on quadratic equations and imaginary zeros has felt like an exercise in futility.
“They’ll never use it again,” says Dr. Levitt.
It’s an odd thing for someone like Dr. Levitt to say, given his career as an economist at the University of Chicago and his work as co-author of the book “Freakonomics.” But learning math is different from understanding data. He and others contend that the way math is taught in schools is outdated and impractical in preparing students for today’s data-driven world.
This frustration has led the economist to moonlight as a math education reformer. Last year, Dr. Levitt and his nonprofit at the University of Chicago, the Center for Radical Innovation for Social Change, teamed up with Stanford University math-education professor Jo Boaler to push the movement to modernize math.
Dr. Levitt’s proposal is simple: Condense three years of high-school math—typically Algebra I in ninth grade, Geometry in 10th grade and Algebra II in junior year—to two years. Then, devote the freed up time to more relevant learning, such as data science or financial literacy.
Policy makers are beginning to imagine what a modernized math curriculum could look like—one that would acknowledge the prevalence of computers and the importance of data literacy, broaden the pathways to college acceptance, and prepare students for real-life issues, such as understanding the amortization of a mortgage, evaluating the impact of waste on the environment or deciphering infection rates of Covid-19.
Dr. Boaler, who has been pressing for change for years, says the movement for reform is gaining momentum, as some higher-education institutions adjust their admissions requirements and the pandemic highlights inequities within education.
“We don’t need people to replicate what a computer can do in the 21st century. We need those creative thinkers,” says Dr. Boaler.
Conrad Wolfram’s vision is at the extreme end of math reform: His idea is to eliminate hand calculations from the curriculum. Mr. Wolfram, the co-founder of Wolfram Research Europe, the mathematical lab behind the specialized search engine Wolfram Alpha, has campaigned for over a decade to overhaul the way mathematics are taught. Mr. Wolfram, the author of the book “The Math Fix: An Education Blueprint for the AI Age” that was released in June, says the fundamental problem with today’s math curriculum is that it doesn’t acknowledge that computers exist.