Who's Looking to Reshape How Math is Taught in College?

The teacher who told you that "you need math for everything" was right. No matter your chosen college major or professional aspirations, mathematical literacy and analytical skills are increasingly important to everyday life.

Now, if we can just teach those numeric skills in K-12 schools and in college in such a way as to maximize students' chances for success. What's more, we should differentiate the types of math skills students need based on their career goals.

Carnegie Corporation of New York is among those pondering this issue, based on a pair of grants awarded as part of a recent announcement of more than 30 new grants. Carnegie, one of the largest funders in the nation, just announced 37 new grants totaling nearly $27 million. The grants span the funder's international and national programs, with the latter including grants for a variety of K-12 and higher education projects.

A pair of grants totaling $2.1 million focus on the teaching of mathematics. Carnegie awarded $1.1 million to the University of Texas in Austin for two years of continued support of the New Mathways Project, an initiative aimed at building student success in postsecondary math by offering a variety of pathways in which students learn rigorous math skills that are relevant to their chosen fields of study.

The second grant, worth $1 million over two years, went to the University of Maryland for continued support of the Transforming Postsecondary Math Education (TPSE) project. Like the Texas project, TPSE strives to develop new curriculum pathways to increase student success in postsecondary math and bring the field closer to students by increasing the alignment of math courses with students' chosen fields of study. TPSE also aims to improve the methods of delivering math instruction, including the use of technology. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is another prominent supporter of TPSE.

Studies suggest a disconnect between the traditional sequence of mathematics courses in high school and college, and the career fields chosen by many students. The studies argue that for many students, a solid foundation in basic math and Algebra I, plus some basic geometric and statistical concepts, are sufficient preparation for many career fields. One study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, suggested that only about 5 percent of workers will use the skills taught in the traditional high school sequence of Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus.

While there is no doubt about the importance of mathematical literacy, there is room for variation based on students' career interests. Data scientists and software developers need calculus and other advanced quantitative training, but such skills are less essential for popular fields such as nursing and office administration. Carnegie's attention to this issue is right, and we hope other funders will follow suit.