Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

@Freakonomics should really work a little harder if they want to impact math education

I’m a big fan of Freakonomics. I read the book, I’ve listened to just about every episode, and I’ve been consistently subscribed to it longer than any other podcast that isn’t about math or house music. So I was jazzed when they decided to take on math curriculum. Based on earlier episodes about our political parties, the life of a CEO, and behavioral economics, I was really expecting something amazing. After listening to this episode I came away a little underwhelmed as it went to too little depth so they could support a pretty unoriginal, pre-determined solution.

There is a typical line of reasoning proffered by potential education reforms that support their innovations which seems to be used here. It goes like this:

  • Our education system is pictured as old and outdated.
  • The outdated system could be immediately fixed by the new solution.
  • The only thing stopping us from bathing in the revolution are those stodgy old educators, who need to adopt the solution nationwide.

If you look around you’ll notice this idea sandwich everywhere. It’s surprising to see it used here as it violates the principles of basic research e.g. choosing your conclusion before you understand the problem. I won’t go into too much detail about the episode, you can listen to it here. In the episode there was a frustration with the Algebra II homework that host Steven Levitt was helping his 10th grader finish. He then does the whole idea sandwich to suggest swapping out data science for algebra 2 in high school math. There was a question for bringing this to school as a whole. Then a historical summary about math education’s origins. There also interviews with Jo Boaler, and the college board CEO, and Levitt’s cousin who taught a few years. All were ostensibly asked a version of two questions “High school math sucks, right?” and “How cool would data science be?” It seems like stacking the deck for data science, which is fine, as data science is cool, but there is more to what’s wrong with math than just the lack of regression models.

Later in the show they review research done with listeners of the show. They were asked what kind of math they use in their everyday life, and the results imply that data science would have brought more day to day utility. If your audience is full of people who earned high school diplomas, and higher ed degrees, accepting that premise is a bit premature. Everyday math benefits these people regardless of how much they’ve used it. Their career would be inaccessible without the education that their math scores allowed. Their knowledge of math made them competitive at colleges providing them a privilege to ignore math the rest of their life while keeping their benefits in tact. Many people don’t know how to parallel park, and don’t do so regularly, but their knowledge of parallel parking on their driving exam allows them the privilege of a driver’s license. Contrast all of this with someone whose struggles in math prevented them from attaining any of those levels of education. Perhaps they were in a school that didn’t offer advanced math classes, or only offered them to students on a higher track. Perhaps the student was in a class, but the teacher did not teach for equity, leaving many traditionally underrepresented students and special needs students behind. For many, math isn’t just a boring chore. It’s a glass ceiling, locking them into lower income classes while bestowing privilege on others.

I am not arguing for continuing the focus on algebra 2 so that students can take AP exams, I am arguing that math should be decoupled from the privilege society gives it. Earning high math scores is as important for your daughter to compete for scarce seats in colleges as it is for providing day-to-day value. This sucks. Math could be a subject of beauty and meaning for people’s day to day life like art or poetry, if it wasn’t militarized to help people jockey for position. However, competitiveness in education has made math appear solely as a measuring stick for students. Algebra 2 is a class his 10th grade daughter is taking when many take it senior year. This means she must have had algebra in the 8th grade or earlier, and must be in line for AP calculus or Stats, or both senior year. These other classes are pushed into lower and lower grades so that students appear more prepared for college. These students will beat out students from schools without that math preparation. It’s easy to imagine that if his daughter were taking a data science course right now, she would lose out on her competitive edge and face a similarly small pool of options.

Unless dozens of parents start an opt-out campaign, the idea for adopting the class that he proposes would be to talk with college admissions counselors about how to make it interesting, or talk to to current teachers about how to integrate data science into what schools are currently doing. This would be a really interesting route to explore and lead to an interesting episode. The show could pick up with part 2 where they continue the analysis of how math curriculum could change. The first step of that, would be to talk to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics who wrote a whole book about changing high school math, that is fully in line with the changes proposed in the show and could use the amplification Freakonomics could provide.

There are plenty of other avenues that Freakonomics could take with math education outside of the well worn “Idea sandwich.” There are so many good economics ideas to be discussed around high school math. Scarcity, opportunity cost, competition, etc. Freakonomics is also in a position to learn a great deal of these things. It would have been interesting to hear what the people at University of Chicago Lab school, as a high school, would think about replacing algebra 2, and what the anticipated parent response might be. It also might be interesting to talk to your University of Chicago admissions, and see how they would interpret a data science course on a students transcript who doesn’t go on to take any AP math courses. It would be really interesting to also talk to current teachers who are teaching data science and describe how different the classroom experience is with a current on-the-ground perspective especially considering all of the new stats and data tools that are becoming available (Desmos, CODAP, etc). 


Waiting for things to clear up #VConHM


Two talks and an ear infection: Reflections on #NCTMBoston19


  1. Dee Crescitelli

    Really good insights here, Carl! This topic definitely shouldn’t be a one-off… and lots of folks are talking about it. Here’s hoping that @Freakonomics and others keep diving in.

  2. c2cmathed_webmaster

    Thanks for reading! I hope so too…

  3. Steve levitt

    Thanks, Carl. We will take your comments to heart.

    Steve Lebitt

    • Carla

      As a math teacher I was also a little underwhelmed with this episode, even though I’m a huge advocate of teaching students real world math and what they call data science. My three main issues:

      1) when I was in high school I learned the history of the world, and French and read a ton of novels. I don’t use any of that stuff and that doesn’t bother anyone. It’s assumed that studying that stuff gives you a better understanding of people and language and motivations, etc. and it did. But the things that made me understand how my world works more than anything else were calculus, physics and computer programming. Even if I never “used” any of that stuff I would be happy to have learned them because I like understanding how the world around me works.

      2) what if I told you you should learn how to play the violin or make a three point shot without hours of practice. You would think I was being ridiculous. And yet people tell math teachers all the time that we should be able to teach kids math without insisting on tedious practice. Somehow when it’s basketball or violin- even if we don’t expect the child to ever be a professional- the practice is considered worthwhile. It builds character and work ethic. But then when math teachers try to get students to practice their fractions and basic algebra (things that the podcast said colleges DO look for) we aren’t being creative enough or are accused of assigning busy work.

      3) fine. I like it. Replace algebra II with data science. Or- more generally- replace the last year of high school math with data science for some subset of kids. I say a subset because I’m assuming you still want _some_ kids to become engineers and physicists and other things that require calculus (and so require precalculus and trig and algebra II). So my question is- who? Which kids are we gonna take out of the running? Which kids are we going to say to, when they’re 16- we’ve figured out it doesn’t make sense for you to take calculus because you’ll never have a career that requires it and you’re not the type of person who’s world will be enriched and you probably won’t even get much from the increase in work ethic or learning the universal process that math provides: learn the rules of a system and then solve problems within those constraints. Really, for you, subset of kids, it makes more sense just to focus on practical life skills. So, how are you going to decide that one?

      BTW- I love freakanomics I’m a huge fan 🙂

  4. I am of the making math more interesting- physics and Algebra II – we could call it Phygebra!!!! Oh well, I’ll just keep working on making my classroom (Algebra 1) more interesting and fun!!!‍♀️

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