Pi Day puzzle: figuring out how much math Texas students need

Posted Thursday, Mar. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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campbell Today is Pi Day, and I'm thinking pecan or maybe lemon sounds good for a celebration. Almost anything except rhubarb.

Pi Day actually celebrates math, not dessert, though some people consider numbers a feast for the mind.

This pseudo-holiday falls on March 14 because Pi, symbolized by a Greek letter, is 3.14 (and on and on, infinitely, without repeating). In basic geometry, it's the ratio of the distance around a circle (circumference) to the distance across it (diameter). You can also take a circle's radius (half the distance across), square it, multiply by Pi and get the area.

You needn't be Matt Damon's janitor/math genius Will Hunting to consider Pi Day worth observing. It's also Albert Einstein's birthday.

The U.S. House in 2009 adopted HR 224 supporting Pi Day because "mathematics and science are a critical part of our children's education, and children who perform better in math and science have higher graduation and college attendance rates." (1.usa.gov/X7HAd6)

(Ten Republicans, including Texans Ron Paul, Ted Poe and Randy Neugebauer, voted against the resolution. Go figure.)

The Legislature also talks up the imperative of improving kids' ciphering skills and attracting more of them into the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.

Barely five years ago, Texas started requiring high school students to take four years of math and four of science (plus four of English and social studies). It made sense. More challenging classes plus higher expectations add up to better-prepared students.

The same reasoning underscored a reincarnation of standardized tests: Let's measure critical thinking skills instead of multiple-choice test-taking ability.

But lawmakers already want to overhaul the testing system, and they're poised to subtract a year or two from the math and science requirements.

I can see pluses and minuses. (Who could resist the pun?)

The idea is to give students more flexibility, especially if they want to pursue career-oriented courses.

But employers and business groups have been griping for years that students aren't prepared for an increasingly technological workforce. Wouldn't the proposed changes mean regression? The Higher Education Coordinating Board estimates that 2,600 to 6,000 more students would need remediation classes once they get to college.

On the other hand, how many high school juniors and seniors will find their future in advanced quantitative reasoning or AP Calculus?

Back in high school, when we counted on an abacus, I could derive a quadratic equation with ease. Still, college calculus kicked me in the can until one day the light dawned and I comprehended the formulas long enough to pull an A.

No doubt I left more educated for having studied plenty of math. But for all the times I've had to decipher budgets, calculate fractions without a calculator and wade through statistical charts, I can't remember ever needing derivatives, logarithms or secants to write a coherent sentence.

If you ever watched the CBS television show Numb3rs, though, you'd believe that all of life's mysteries can be solved with an algorithm.

Maybe the solution for Texas schools isn't necessarily less required math but more instruction that makes the subject matter clearly relevant.

One state rep wants to mandate a financial literacy course. If you've ever tried to juggle bills until payday, get a loan, manage credit card interest and fees, decipher a medical statement or compare insurance plans, you know none of that is math for dummies.

How about high-level math courses that cover how a small-business owner would calculate profits, losses, supply needs and delivery logistics? Or the number sense it takes to work in a professional sports team's front office. Or the application of math to political races, the oil and gas industry, expansion of fast-food chains, development of video games or any number of real-world applications.

After all, the number of math credits on a transcript isn't what equals a good education.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.

817-390-7867

Twitter: @LindaPCampbell

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