Needed Math

Needed Math


Conference Proceedings


"Much that is taught in high school is not needed, much that is taught in middle school is not learned, and some topics that are needed are neither taught nor learned." — What Does It Really Mean to be College and Work Ready? A report from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), 2013

"When am I ever going to use this?"" — Common question from high school math students


Employers, instructors of technical subjects, and mathematics educators who participated in a three-day conference on January 12-15, 2018, concluded that students’ mathematical competence should be strengthened by enhancing their ability to solve problems found in real-world contexts. The Needed Math Conference, supported by the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program of the National Science Foundation (Grant number: 1737946), focused on bringing to light how mathematics education might better reflect the concepts and skills that are prerequisites for postsecondary education technical programs and for successful employment as entry-level technicians in STEM-related fields, as well as in many other occupations.

The mission of the National Science Foundation's ATE program is stated in its program solicitation:

With an emphasis on two-year colleges, the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program focuses on the education of technicians for the high-technology fields that drive our nation's economy. The program involves partnerships between academic institutions and industry to promote improvement in the education of science and engineering technicians at the undergraduate and secondary school levels (NSF, 2018).

This goal is of vital importance nationally if the United States is to remain globally.

Adding contextual relevance can demonstrate the utility and beauty of the mathematics students learn. Students who have this experience of studying mathematics in real-world contexts will have a firmer basis on which to build more advanced concepts.

Needed Math attendees


Many students are disenfranchised from mathematics because they do not see how the subject as they study it in school applies to their everyday lives and future careers. Although we might like all students to be drawn to study mathematics by its elegance, to appreciate its patterns, rigor, and structure, and to learn through its study to think abstractly and reason logically, a curriculum aimed at such lofty goals can result in convincing many students that they lack some innate ability and are thus doomed forever to be "bad at math." The insecurity that this engenders then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that endures into adulthood, and mathematics instruction becomes a barrier not only to further education but to career goals as well.

The current K-12 math curriculum and pedagogy all too often produce students who are ill-prepared for employment in the technical workplace. Employers report that, despite studying mathematics in every grade from kindergarten through high school and beyond, the graduates they hire often don’t know how to tackle the kinds of problems that typically arise in the workplace. For example, while the "renaissance" in manufacturing is a positive development for the economy, employers surveyed for the Manufacturing Institute’s 2015 Skills Gap study reported an obstacle: a "sizeable gap" between the talent they need and what is available in the job market. The respondents – over 450 manufacturing executives – listed math skills among the most serious deficiencies, along with technical and computer skills and problem-solving ability. An analysis of skills gaps in four industries including manufacturing found significant "foundational skills gaps" particularly in applied mathematics (Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, 2015).

The Needed Math Conference, held on January 12 to 15, 2018, brought together employers in three STEM fields (biotechnology, manufacturing technology, and information and communication technology), postsecondary instructors of technical subjects related to those fields, and mathematics educators. There was consensus among them that there is a significant gap between the math that students are taught, tested on, and retain beyond school and the mathematical skills and abilities they need to solve problems commonly found in real-world contexts and that this likely contributes to the undersupply of skilled workers prepared for successful careers in STEM-related fields. Employers felt there will be a continuing need to revisit math curricula to ensure that they align with the needs of technicians in the 21st century workplace.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that the inadequate mathematical preparation among high school graduates is reflected in a gap between the number of applicants for postsecondary training in STEM fields and the number of academic openings available.
The problem is complex, and the solutions to it are correspondingly varied, but the basic recommendation from the Conference is that the mathematics standards, assessments, and curriculum be revisited and revised so as to place greater emphasis on the skills needed to solve the kinds of problems that arise in the real world. Although the Conference participants represented only STEM fields, several of them noted that the kind of mathematical skills useful in those areas – e.g., mathematical modeling, statistical reasoning, and systems thinking – are valuable in many other career paths.

We recognize that implementing the recommended changes will be a complex and challenging undertaking, one that is likely to take years to accomplish and require engaging a great many diverse communities with varying interests and constituencies. Therefore, to support the effort, we recommend placing greater emphasis on contextualized math instruction. We urge an increased focus on topics that support teaching math in context and a corresponding shift in emphasis in the instruments that are used to assess learning. We argue that the current mathematics-for-all curriculum and assessment framework should be augmented by establishing a separate mathematically rigorous pathway based on realistic problems representative of those that many students will encounter after they leave school.

Continuing the dialogue among groups that appear disparate but are united in their greater goals is essential. In an ever-more connected world, there is little excuse for not creating a platform for such communication. This conference could be the seed that grows into a full, easy-to-use communication line among the various groups concerned with math curriculum, teaching/assessing, and utilization.