Orlando Sentinel commentator and dad argues pushing college-bound students to take “advanced mathematics” is “just not worth it”; here’s my response

Leslie Postal at School Zone yesterday posted on two commentaries appearing in the Orlando Sentinel.  One was my argument for more end-of-course exams in high school math and science courses.  The other was by a Winter Park dad, an engineer by trade, who talked about his daughters and argued that since they are oriented towards the arts that they should not be pressured to take “advanced mathematics” courses – presumably anything beyond Algebra 2 (although he didn’t specifically say).  Here’s my response:

Dear Mr. Shallcross,

Congratulations on having two such terrific daughters who are doing well in school and heading for college.  I have two daughters   who are a little farther along but have been successful in school as well, and a son who is a few years away from college and who is also doing well.  As a college professor who gets paid to work with 20-year-olds and an observer of society at large, I am constantly reminded about how many things can go wrong in the lives of our children.  We are indeed fortunate that we haven’t encountered those difficulties.

But it’s important to keep in mind that our children will be graduating into a world much different from the one you and I entered when we finished college (I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1982).  In our time, anybody earning a college degree pretty much had it made.  This is no longer the case.  The combined rate of unemployment or underemployment among recent college grads is about 50%, and more than half of new college grads now move back in with their parents.

And the differences in incomes between different career tracks have become quite stark.  According to a recent Georgetown University study, students who major in the arts are near the bottom of the pile in career earnings potential.  That’s a concern for parents of college studio art majors – like me.  My middle child has been assured by the professors at her well-regarded liberal arts college that she has excellent design ability.  But what’s a student who is strong in design skills to do?  Well, because she has been working hard at math and physics all the way through high school, taking the same two Advanced Placement calculus courses you did (but probably not doing quite as well as you did) and taking Honors Physics and AP Physics, she has been able to complete college courses in multivariable calculus and physics and turn herself into a strong prospect for graduate school in architecture.

Architecture isn’t the only design field in which number sense and comfort with technology is important.  A colleague of mine in FSU’s Art Department says that she advises every student in her field to focus on work that uses technology, since that’s what hot and where the employment prospects are.

In fact, yet another Georgetown report says that scientific and technological disciplines have “become the common currency in the labor market”.  In other words, science and math are not just important in science and math careers, but in all fields.

If Florida’s universities are indeed refocusing on preparing students for economically viable career paths, then they will change their admissions requirements to include Precalculus and Biology-Chemistry-Physics (yep, all three).  In the new world, even studio art majors should have this background in high school.




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