Monday, August 8, 2016

Get Them into Calc: A Defense of Calculus Education

I recently applied to be an AP Calculus Reader for (hopefully) next summer.  This has been a dream of mine for the past three years, so I was excited to finally be allowed to submit an application.

The application questions really got me thinking.  I realized (not for the first time) how passionate I am about calculus education.

A few months ago, I applied to begin a PhD in Mathematics Education, and I put these thoughts on paper for the first time. (I was accepted but deferred as I realized I couldn't stay away from teaching.)  Here's part of my essay for admission:

I fell in love with school from the moment I was first introduced to it.  I was the kid who would come home from school only to make her little sister pretend-play classroom until it was dinnertime.  Never was my sister allowed to be the teacher, by the way.  Being a teacher was all I ever remember wanting to be when I grew up.  [...] 
Not unexpectedly, one of the highlights of graduate school for me was teaching my own sections of College Algebra.  Because of this, I searched primarily for college teaching positions upon graduation.  I was pleased to accept a position at Tulsa Community College, teaching mostly for their EXCELerate program.  This meant that I had the privilege of teaching high school students at Union who were taking college classes for dual credit.  What I did not expect when I accepted this position was just how much I would love teaching high school students.  It should be noted that I attended only private school or homeschool through my childhood; hence, teaching at a large public school like Union High School was never on my radar.  Little did I know that I had just found one of my utmost passions in life.The following year, a position at UHS opened, and the administration asked me to apply.  With some trepidation, but mostly excitement, I accepted the position and began my journey as a high school teacher.  The past few years at UHS have been nothing short of incredible.  I accepted this job because I thought I could make a difference in the lives of young adults.  What I did not realize was what a profound impact these young adults would have on my life.  They have taught me the importance of kindness, vulnerability, patience, persistence, and love.  I adore my kids more than words can say, and I am forever in their debt for giving me a career about which I am truly passionate. My favorite class to teach is AP Calculus.  I feel this is a wonderful course that teaches so much more than mathematics.  Last year, I had an eighty-two percent pass rate on the AP Exam (one hundred percent pass rate for the students who had also had my PreCalculus course); the national pass rate was fifty-seven percent. [This year I had an eighty-seven percent pass rate; national pass rate was fifty-nine percent.]  Calculus education is a field that is somewhat under-researched, and I am excited to learn more about what can be done to promote calculus literacy and fluency at both the high school and the college level.  My goal in pursuing a PhD in Education is to one day be a teacher-leader at the district or state level to help schools vertically align their mathematics courses so that as many students who want to take calculus can do so and can experience success.  I have seen what experiencing this success can do for a child’s confidence.  I want as many students as possible to encounter this joy, and I want to help as many teachers as possible witness this.
That is my passion:  open access to calculus for all students who want to take it and who have taken the appropriate steps to acquire the necessary background knowledge.  I believe that access to calculus is vital for a school's success because a school's primary goal should be to see its students grow.  My claim is that advanced mathematics allows students this opportunity.  When students experience success in calculus, their view of themselves blossoms.  They start to see themselves as young adults who are capable of basically anything...if they will work and stick with it.  I've seen it time and time again in just a few years--calculus gives kids confidence they never had before.

Yes, calculus allows students to navigate both abstract and applied mathematics.  If done right, it teaches them how to see the world through derivatives and integrals.  It teaches them about the physics of motion and about the science of change.

But, it teaches them in many other ways...

For better or for worse, calculus is seen to many as the pinnacle of mathematics education, maybe even the pinnacle of all high school education.

I'm not saying this is right.  But I have taken advantage of this.

When the majority of my students start calculus class, they come in with a mixture of anxiety and excitement.  They've reached a point many do not reach.  They are both proud of themselves and also scared of failure.  If they fail, what does that say about them?

What I believe is vital is that--if they show up and if they try--they will not fail.

In fact, they will succeed.

And when they succeed, they soar.  Sure, they've done well in other classes before, but something unique happens when they do well in calculus.  Again, part of this is due to the way our culture glorifies calculus; but part of this is due to the fact that you really cannot BS your way through calc.  You have to know it.  You have to understand it; to apply it.

Hence, when students achieve that passing grade (ethically), they know they earned it.  They know they mastered the material.

My point is:  I believe we have to do more to (1) get more students into a high school calculus course and (2) get those students to succeed in calculus.  Because when these kids succeed in calculus, they decide they are capable of just about anything.

It's our job as educators to push our kids to greatness.  We have to believe they are capable of more than they believe they're capable of.  We have to demand more of them than they would demand of themselves.  We have to give them the tools to conquer their goals and their fears.

Get them into calculus.  It will accomplish all of this.


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  3. Calculus is "sexy" but not nearly as useful as AP Statistics in my opinion. I think too many math teachers get caught up in the idea that since they did calculus and it was awesome for them their kids should do it too. Calculus is niche, Statistics is everywhere.

    1. I mostly agree: I think I was pretty clear that it's our culture that has made calculus such a big deal. As a calculus teacher, I've used this to my advantage. I will always argue the usefulness of statistics; however, I will also always be passionate about the beauty, the history, and the mystery that is calculus. Kids sense this mystery...and I think it'd be a shame not to capitalize on it.

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