It’s Time to Start Treating High School Math Like Football
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It’s Time to Start Treating High School Math Like Football

James D. Miller
James D. Miller
6 min read

As a skinny, unathletic nerd, I had no desire to play high-school football. Fortunately, no one compelled me to do so. Even if I could have become an adequate player by expending massive effort, much of the time I spent playing would have come at the expense of learning things that were actually useful to my future career.

My high school’s football team, too, benefited from my absence. Helping me would have taken coaching time away from players with real talent and passion for the game. Worse, if everyone received the same level of training, and that training level were calibrated to suit my own limited athletic abilities, better players would have been subject to useless basic instructions and drills. If they tried to make football more appealing to me by, say, stressing the principles of physics that govern the game, they likely would have made it less interesting for most naturally gifted athletes.

American high schools excel at nurturing football talent. If the future of American economic and military might rested on our country’s ability to produce quality football players, the United States would have nothing to fear from Chinese great-power rivalry. But at the same time, American public schools don’t force anyone to play football. If you’re talented and want to play, there is a strong incentive to do so, since accomplished players get rewarded with social status and gain an advantage in college admissions. But those of us who never play football have other paths to success, and are not considered failures just because we didn’t master the game.

I propose that we treat high-school math like football, whereby we encourage and train those with talent, but neither denigrate nor fret over non-participating students. This approach would not only improve math education for those naturally gifted in the subject but also help to save advanced math programs from the progressive reformers who control the commanding heights of American education.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, ranked the best high school in the United States, recently changed its admission standards in order to eliminate its “notoriously difficult admissions test.” Undoubtedly, the new exam won’t be as effective at preferentially selecting for students with excellent STEM potential. Classes at the school will likely have to be dumbed down in order to accommodate the lower academic admissions standards associated with the higher number of non-Asian students (including whites) who will take spots from displaced Asians.

New York City has fantastic public schools for gifted students, who gain admission after taking a test in kindergarten. When he was the (ultra-progressive) mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio implemented a plan to eliminate the highly selective admissions procedures, as a means to fight (supposed) racial bias in the intake procedures. His plan fizzled. But the same isn’t true of California’s plans to implement new education guidelines that will de-track much of math education, and infuse the curriculum with social-justice messaging. Under the plan, many students who excel at math would sit in the same class as those far below them in ability, while spending much of their time learning how to use math to achieve racial justice.

As the New York Times reports, “testing results regularly show that math students in the United States are lagging behind those in other industrialized nations. And within the country, there is a persistent racial gap in achievement.” And the traditional approach to math creates the appearance of a conflict between these two real problems: To improve math education, we need to better tailor the difficulty level of math instruction to each student, which happens to some degree when schools offer different levels of math. But when you do that, you often get classes whose racial composition deviates from that of the school as a whole. i.e., The racial gap gets wider.

An advanced math class whose composition is racially unbalanced constitutes a visible symptom of educational outcome inequality. And the easiest way to erase such a symptom is to eliminate the advanced math class itself. Yes, if you put everyone in the same math course, some groups will on average get lower grades, but grades are mostly kept secret, whereas class composition is out in the open. Furthermore, putting everyone in the same math course will cause the top students to learn less math than they otherwise would, which is bad for the student, but (perversely) a boon for social justice, since it lowers inequality between groups.

For the country as a whole, of course, retarding the math education of the most talented tier of students is catastrophic, as it reduces economic growth and, indirectly, military power. But then again, many of the same progressives who seek to level academic performance also are inclined to downplay the value of economic growth and Western military might. (The richer a country is, the more fossil fuels it consumes.) Moreover, race has become a more or less all-consuming fixation in progressive policy circles, so it seems inevitable that progressive objections to the very idea of separating students into different math classes according to their ability will only become more strenuous over time.

But one way to get around this type of ideologically motivated objection would be to have students branch off into different subjects instead of levels. So, for instance, after middle school, advanced high-school math students would continue studying math at a level commensurate with their ability; while others would use that class time to study, say, world literature. There would still be a skill-based math split, of course, but the split wouldn’t express itself in the kind of observably stratified structure within math that arouses progressive ire. Instead, the split would be between subject streams, a less inherently objectionable scenario.

This kind of workaround is required insofar as we indulge the myth that there is no such thing as a gifted child. As the New York Times reports, California’s school reforms are built around this conceit explicitly. Everyone of common sense knows that this conceit is untrue. But if you find yourself ideologically compelled to profess belief in it (as many progressives are), you will also be required to profess belief in the blank-slate notion that, since everyone has equal natural talent at math, then any group-based statistical variations (say, between Asians and whites at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, for instance) must be rooted in discrimination or privilege (and so should not be accepted).

For selfish reasons, I wish that there really were no such thing as natural giftedness in children, because then I’d be able to attribute my son’s extraordinary math ability to my own parenting skill, and educators would give me a multimillion-dollar contract to teach them how to get seventh graders to perform math at a first-year college level (as my son was able to do at the time). But alas (for my career prospects in this regard), the phenomenon of gifted students is very real.

I don’t think substituting another course for math in high school will harm students who lack the desire or ability to have a STEM career—just as it’s perfectly fine to run track instead of playing football. While my son’s planned career in computer programming and AI means he will frequently use advanced math, most adults don’t need to know math much beyond calculating tips and understanding interest rates. Furthermore, as the easiest way to do well on math exams is to memorize procedures for solving specific types of problems, I doubt understanding math beyond simple algebra helps low-math-ability students learn more general thinking skills. Students who hate math would love to be free from having to memorize useless (to them) trigonometric functions, geometric proofs, and quadratic equations.

While I personally liked math in school, I hated spelling. In early grades, I spent countless hours with my parents memorizing spelling-word lists, knowledge that I forgot shortly after the exams (on which I did poorly, in most cases). Finally, around grade eight, my school diagnosed me with a learning disability, and exempted me from spelling tests and from losing points from misspelling words in in-class essays. Without such an exemption, I might not have graduated high school. Not having to worry about spelling freed up my study time for learning material that better contributed to my human capital. As Dirty Harry once put it, “a man’s got to know his limitations.”

In the real adult world, success often comes from learning what you are bad at and either avoiding these things entirely, or getting others to help you with them—which is why none of us are (or, at least should be) stigmatized for hiring other people to, say, do our taxes, fix our plumbing, or debug our computers. The whole fabric of modern life is premised on the assumption of specialization. Grade schooling presents an exception to this rule, because it is generally run on the unspoken belief that students shouldn’t be able to escape their weaknesses at this early point in life. But in the current ideological climate, the continued viability of our high-tech economy may depend on us rethinking that assumption.


James D. Miller

James D. Miller is a professor of economics at Smith College, the author of Singularity Rising, and host of the Future Strategist Podcast.