CREDIT: Kate Sept / iStockCREDIT: Kate Sept / iStockPamela BurdmanApril 8, 2018They 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 BurdmanThese 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.

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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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