The Progress and Uphill Battle for Data Science Education

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College admissions requirements send signals to high schools about what courses are valued. But when those requirements fail to change with the times, they can actually stifle innovation.

Take the teaching of data science in high school. The development of such courses has been stunted in virtually every state in the country, because they don’t clearly fall within the defined math requirements for admission to most public and private universities. One notable exception is California’s Introduction to Data Science course.

IDS, which I’ve written about here, here, here, and here, is a six-year-old high school course pioneered by faculty at the University of California-Los Angeles in partnership with Los Angeles Unified School District. Now offered at 17 districts in California, as well as schools in three other states, IDS offers juniors and seniors an opportunity to learn basic statistics and computer programming by collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data sets from their own lives.

The course’s rapid growth underscores (1) the importance of having high school math options in addition to the one-size-fits-all pathway to calculus, and (2) the value of data science as an option that offers real-world relevance as well as preparation for a range of technical and non-technical fields.

It also points to the wisdom of designing new math pathways with college admissions in mind. Aided by UCLA’s involvement in its development, the course has fulfilled requirements for admission to both of the state’s university systems from the get-go. That has supported the course’s growth, assuring students and teachers that having the course on a student’s transcript won’t hurt their college admission chances. The latest update to the UC system’s admissions policies makes explicit that courses such as data science, discrete mathematics, and computer science can (depending on the specifics of the course) meet the system’s math requirement. And that clarification will likely encourage development of other non-traditional math courses.

Though such policies could be interpreted as challenging the algebra-centric orthodoxy that has dictated high school math curricula for decades, taken in a broader context, there is nothing controversial about data science: Over a five-year period, data science jobs grew by 650 percent, according to a LinkedIn report. College data science programs are also multiplying: A few years ago, for example, a UC Berkeley course called Foundations of Data Science became the fastest-growing course in campus history. Data science has since become an undergraduate major at that campus and many others.

In fact, as explained in Just Equations’ Branching Out report, the traditional, narrow math pathway leading to Calculus serves very few students well. It has been preserved largely due to tradition and college admission policies. For several years now, leading math societies have acknowledged the need for more than one pathway, in order to ensure that mathematics remains engaging and relevant to students. Stanford University’s YouCubed, led by revered math education expert Jo Boaler, is developing a high school data-science course.

Perhaps what is most compelling about data science is that while it can support entry to STEM fields, it also has deep relevance for the social sciences. Economist Steve Levitt is promoting data science education through his Freakonomics podcast and his new think tank. And at UCLA, psychology faculty have developed a statistics course that emphasizes data analysis.

No wonder state education leaders are paying attention. California’s new math framework is expected to incorporate a new emphasis on data science, and Georgia’s education department is developing a two-course high school data science sequence in partnership with the Charles A. Dana Center’s Launch Years initiative.

Nevertheless, at a recent meeting of mathematics task forces from 20-some states, it was clear that one of the greatest obstacles to expanding such courses was the concern that they won’t meet college expectations. So, to see where math education is heading, keep your eye on admissions policies.

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