In Praise of Difficulty

You are probably aware that Texas in 2015 modified the default public high school curriculum. Most controversially, the second course of algebra was made optional—that is, not included automatically in the degree plan of all high schoolers. The idea is to steer young students into pathways that lead to more success, not only in coursework, but also consistent with early career preferences, however tentative.

We are doing the same sort of thing at the collegiate level. Some students now satisfy degree requirements in certain fields by taking statistics in place of algebra, for instance.

The new college course offerings are not intended, sponsors maintain, to be less rigorous. Those of us who struggled through statistics courses can attest that they can be intensely difficult, in addition to being more “practical” later, to those not employed in scientific and technical occupations. Think of an average consumer trying to make sense of the published health risks of new drugs. It helps to know what a correlation is, and what it is not.

Some mathematics instructors, however, continue to believe sincerely that reducing the number of high school students in advanced algebra (and hence calculus later) is detrimental to the students’ subsequent success in any field. Whatever one’s views on the subject, you might want to take a look at this article from the respected Hechinger Report, by Sarah Butrymowicz, called “Why Placing Students in Difficult High School Classes May Increase College Enrollment.”

Some of the article concerns Advanced Placement classes and other strategies that may not always apply to community college students. (Most successful AP students enroll later at selective institutions and, as the article points out, tend to come from families with higher incomes and educational levels.)

But the important takeaway from the Hechinger piece is that difficult challenges for students are more likely to result in subsequent success, especially for those in at-risk categories. A high school in Spokane is profiled in the article.

Young individuals without firm guidance often gravitate to the path of least resistance. In formulating public policy, we shouldn’t become enablers in this process. The whole point about rigor is not merely the content of the course, but the intellectual discipline it engenders, the so-called “habits of the mind.”

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