Should Calculus be Made Mandatory in High Schools

This seems to be a current fad – pass laws requiring students to take the more challenging courses. Chemistry is required in many places, and Physics is getting tacked on rapidly. I’ve heard some noises about Calculus, but nothing official yet, and honestly, I hope it never comes to pass, and here’s why.

The higher level classes traditionally attract students who are interested in learning the subject, and are willing to work hard to succeed at it. Such classes are likewise geared towards higher level thinking, and have high expectations of the students. When less motivated students are pushed into the class, it throws a major monkey wrench into the system.

Some of the students accept that they must do the greater amount of work that is expected of them, and successfully navigate the course. They may not have enjoyed or appreciated it much, but they did choose to learn. These are the students who do benefit from the required class…or would, if it were not for the other aspect.

The rest of the students are unwilling to put forth the effort to succeed in a more challenging class. They may choose not to do the work, stop when it gets a little frustrating, or act out in resentment. The impact of these students on the course is that somewhere around a third of the students are set to fail for a lack of effort. To some, this might seem acceptable. Those students could then be required to repeat the class, and knowing what to expect, they might put forth more effort. But, the truth is that no school is willing to allow a third of a class to fail. Instead, it becomes necessary to lower the expectations of the class. This is a sad disservice to those students who were ready to work and learn, so a new path may be chosen. The creation of two separate classes, one advanced for the motivated students, and one drastically dumbed down for those who are not. The legal requirements are thereby met, as every student takes a class in the subject, but the lower level of the class gets more of a survey treatment, learns nothing truly applicable, and benefits none. Worse, if a school doesn’t have the budget for enough teachers, the advanced classes are often the first ones cut. Then those students are stuck learning little as well.

All that applies of advanced classes in general, but regarding Calculus in particular, I believe that it is a waste of time for most students. The typical question is “When am I ever going to use this?” While chemistry can be applied to nutrition, drugs, cosmetics… and physics can be applied to driving conditions, building shelves, sports… Calculus really isn’t useful to anyone who isn’t pursuing a degree or career in a math, science or engineering field, and even then only in some cases. Most college degrees don’t even require Calculus, so exactly what justification is there for teaching it at a lower level?