Perhaps math could use a rebrand (because, psst, it’s critical to success)

Just the mere mention of “math” invariably brings up thoughts of difficulty, stress and a narrow focus, but education and business leaders say it shouldn’t.

“It’s really about just day-to-day survival and problem solving,” said Jack McDougle, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. For instance, “creating a painting is a series of problem solving, and math is embedded into every element of that,” he said.

McDougle said business is synonymous with math “because it’s problem solving, it’s critical thinking, it’s making your bottom line. If you don’t make your bottom line, there is no business, so you’re going to have nothing to do.”

Jim Cowen, executive director of the nonprofit Collaborative for Student Success, echoed the problem-solving theme.

“The biggest problems of today — the ones that are the issues that we’re facing around healthcare, around transportation, around energy — those are the issues that are going to demand a higher order of thinking,” he said. “The first human being on Mars is not going to be an average math or science student.”

Math rebrand idea No.1: Be a force for good

It’s all too easy to discourage those who might otherwise excel at math.

Joseph Bostic Jr., the 2021-2022 Montgomery County, Maryland, Public Schools Teacher of the Year, thrived while teaching math to his students. But as a student himself, he acknowledged he was pushed in other directions.

“And in fact, my high school guidance counselor told me, ‘You know, I don’t think you would make it at college. I think you’ll just continue to be a trade school–type student,’ ” he recalled.

Bostic though went on to get a doctorate degree and is now an assistant principal at Northwood High School in Silver Spring. McDougle pointed out that even tradespeople such as welders need advanced math skills.

Math rebrand idea No. 2: Share real-world success stories, uses

Cowen faced his own difficulties. “While I was in high school, I realized I wanted to become a naval officer. And once I realized this, it became very quickly evident that I was not a math student and I was woefully unprepared.” But he was able to get himself back on track — an important lesson that it’s never too late for others either.

Bostic stressed that it was important to show students real-life applications of math. “So I said, ‘Well, instead of slope-intercept formula, we’re going to learn how you could be a real estate agent,’ ” using math to estimate profitability.

Cowen said there are bright spots out there, such as: the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future initiative, job opportunities in Northern Virginia, and investments in career and technical education in Washington, D.C.

“There’s simply no better way to ensure that a student will have a good career pathway and financial success, career opportunities, college success, than having a strong math background,” Cowen said.

“It affects everything that we do in daily life,” McDougle added, “so if you want to engage in the economy, and you want to improve your career pathways, math is critical.”

Considering all of those points, perhaps dropping the term “math” could reduce the intimidation factor. Perhaps it could just be called “school.”

Learn more about how to help students succeed in math and more from the Collaborative for Student Success.

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