Saint Albans School
Grand Prize Winner
Why Statistics Instead of Calculus Would’ve Made My Mathematical Experience In High School More
Relevant to My Future
Students often complain that what they learn in school will never be applicable in life and when it comes
to how math is taught in the United States, these students aren’t entirely wrong. The math curriculum in
the United States requires its students to follow the track of pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, algebra II,
pre-calculus, and then to calculus. This is the model that students follow in the United States with a few
exceptions and possibly in a different order, but this mathematical system is flawed. I want to advocate
for a much more applicable course within mathematics called statistics. The math curriculum in the
United States leads high school students on a confusing and tedious journey towards calculus, but when
these students reach college and the workforce, the applications of calculus only affect a small number
of students on a day to day basis. However, the application of statistics can be applied to many lucrative
fields with much higher applicability for students because statistics can be used in everyday life as
opposed to calculus. Moreover, there is a demand for statisticians and data scientists, and the
prioritization of statistics over calculus could solve this demand. I believe that mathematical education in
the United States should be overhauled to reflect the needs of the 21st-century high school student, be
based around effective forms of education that are applicable for students, and reflect the needs of our
workforce and economy. To accomplish this, educational institutions should prioritize statistics at the top
of the mathematical pyramid as opposed to calculus.
Building the American mathematical model around calculus is a fundamental misunderstanding about
the applications and opportunities that calculus can offer to those who have studied it. The calculus
curriculum forces students to memorize complicated equations in the pursuit of mastering calculus
without even knowing the significance of these equations. What is also puzzling about calculus is that
many of these skills that students are learning have already been made obsolete by the computer or
calculator. I want to clarify that just because computers already have this information doesn’t make the
information irrelevant, but education in the United States should be focused on effective learning as
opposed to useless and mindless memorization. Furthermore, the pursuit of calculus equations and
theorems is unnecessary for the majority of students who take calculus. Calculus is only needed for
engineering, economics, advanced science, and teaching advanced math, yet why are so many students
forced to pursue a math track that leads to calculus. According to mathematician Arthur Benjamin who
appeared in a video for TED and spoke on this very subject stated, “The mathematics curriculum that we
have is based on a foundation of arithmetic and algebra. And everything we learn after that is building up
towards one subject. And at top of that pyramid, it's calculus. And I'm here to say that I think that is the
wrong summit of the pyramid ... that the correct summit -- that all of our students, every high school
graduate should know -- should be statistics: probability and statistics”. Arthur also commented on the
applications of calculus and how it compares to statistics, “I'm here to say, as a professor of
mathematics, that very few people actually use calculus in a conscious, meaningful way, in their day-today lives. On the other hand, statistics -- that's a subject that you could, and should, use on daily basis.
Right? It's risk. It's reward. It's randomness. It's understanding data”. Calculus is still an important math
that should be taught to students who are heading into fields that require complex mathematics,
however for the majority of the country and high schoolers; it is time for greater access and promotion of
statistics to make high school education more relevant for the 21st-century student.
In the coming years with the further integration of “Big Data” into the lives of people around the world,
there is an urgent need for students who understand statistics and data trends. Now more than ever is
the time to make the change from calculus to statistics and shift the American high school mathematical
education model to aid the needs of our workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in
2017, “jobs that require data literacy and statistics are among the 10 fastest-growing occupations in the
country”. Furthermore, according to Business Insider, there is a dearth of experience within the field of
data, “The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the US will face a shortage of up to 190,000
professionals with advanced training in statistics and machine learning ("data scientists") within six
years. But more broadly, another 1.5 million executives and analysts will need enough proficiency in
statistics to work closely with data scientists to design experiments and make better decisions”. The
American high school education system is not offering adequate resources or information to its students
to inform them of this massive opportunity. The Standford Review stated, “As of 2015, however, only 8%
of graduating seniors have taken an AP Statistics course, and 77% have never taken any form of a
statistics course whatsoever”. There is a growing need for members of the workforce who are proficient
in data analysis, and the high school educational system must take advantage of that. Statistics is
applicable in almost any profession. A statistician can go into the food industry or the sports industry and
offer insight on which food items are the best sellers and why, or what play causes the highest percent
injury. The movie Moneyball is another perfect example of the effect and importance of the Data Scientist
in today's day, and age and much like in the movie the skill is undervalued until it changes the game.
Finally, in the age of “Big Data” with enormous amounts of data being collected through smartphones
and many other sources, our educational institutions should evolve much like our technologies to fit the
needs of the next generation and offer applicable education to high school students.
Educational institutions must adapt much like any other institution in our society. High school education
should phase out calculus and leave colleges to teach the advanced course while allowing high schools
to promote the widely applicable math of statistics. Through offering statistics, students have a greater
opportunity at applying what they’ve learned in the classroom to a profession that needs people who
understand how data and statistics work. Statistics is a better alternative for students who will get a poor
grade in calculus and leave school not understanding what they have been taught, or even worse
dropping math all together due to the confusion that calculus often inspires. Statistics is the new wave of
mathematical education and encourages students to use what they’ve learned in the classroom and
apply it to the real world. Furthermore, the field of statistics is severely undermanned and educational
institutions are doing a disservice to their students by not giving them the tools to utilize this
fundamental lapse in our high school education system. In conclusion, statistics is more applicable, in
demand, and more effective for high school students compared to the confusing math of calculus which
is why I believe teaching statistics over calculus would have made my high school experience more
relevant to my future.
Benjamin, Arthur. “Transcript of ‘Teach Statistics before Calculus!".” Ted, Ted, www.ted.com/talks/arthur_benjamin_s_formula_for_changing_math_education/transcript?language=en#t- 18089.
“Big Data.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_data. James Manyika, Michael Chui. “MBAs Can't Afford To End Their Math Education With Calculus.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 12 Mar. 2013, www.businessinsider.com/why-statistics-is-worth-more-than-calc-2013-3.
Sparks, Sarah D. “Calculus Is the Peak of High School Math. Maybe It's Time to Change That.” Education Week, Editorial Project in Education, 20 Feb. 2019, www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/05/23/calculus-isthe-peak-of-high-school.html.
Stanford Review. “Calculus Is Overrated: Why We Should Prioritize Statistics.” The Stanford Review, The Stanford Review, 20 Aug. 2017, stanfordreview.org/calculus-is-overrated-why-we-should-prioritizestatistics-ec8b147389a3/.