We DO Use Math… Kinda

A recently published survey looks at how often Americans use math in their jobs. And after looking at the data, I think Andrew Hacker (of “Is Algebra Necessary?” fame) should look at it. Although The Atlantic piece seems to be spinning it as “Look how little math we use”, I honestly think it goes against the grain of the argument algebra-skeptics were making last year.


Look at the graph. Nearly 20% of Americans use algebra in their jobs. True, that’s definitely short of a majority. But it’s not some rarified, elite stratum of the population. In a typical math class of around 30 students, 6 of them are going to use algebra regularly in their work. That’s probably a lot higher than the number of students having job tasks related to doing explications of text in English or learning gas laws in chemistry. Also notable is the breakdown by job category. Blue collar jobs aren’t much lower in their algebra usage than in white collar jobs, and blue collar trades actually surpass white collar management in algebra usage.

So what does it mean? Lots of stories seem to be running with “clearly not many people use algebra”. But I’d say trying to make a subject that 1 in 5 people regularly use just an elective sounds like a bad move. If algebra were just an elective, it seems likely that lots of kids who aren’t doing college preparatory work in high school may never take it, not realizing that it could be relevant to a decent number of jobs they’re interested in (especially if algebra becomes depicted as something only scientists need).

Does that mean everyone should learn algebra before high school or everyone should take four years of math, a policy proposal that is commonly criticized? No, but that’s a different discussion than just ripping algebra out of the core curriculum. I think it’s perfectly fine if student waits until high school to take algebra if they have more difficulty with math. And I don’t think students should be required to take 4 years of math in high school, but that’s still an uncommon policy. But for now, I’d just like everyone to acknowledge that someone using algebra on the job is a person in your neighborhood.

4 thoughts on “We DO Use Math… Kinda

  1. Imagine if this study were done in china “See, only 1% of our people use algebra (guessing) we don’t need it.” that kind of brings the argument crashing down.

    There is explicit use of math (which this study measured) and then there is implicit use of math (understanding logarithms and exponents, understanding the difference between solvable and unsolvable problem sets, etc.) I think it is a dangerous thing to say people don’t need (insert scientific skill here) in a democracy.
    Think of the current debate about global warming or evolution, having a population that understands the scientific method is important.
    Think of the debate in 2001 about the ” Patriot” Act: a knowledge of history is important.

    No level of education is “good enough”: We need to continually advance and invest in order to succeed.

  2. Super interesting. I’m also shocked by the 5% who are apparently using calculus… I would have expected it to be MUCH lower.

    • I know! I’m going to admit my bias and say I was floored to see about 8% of upper blue collar workers using calculus, because I really don’t think much of it outside of science, engineering, and math/computational stuff. I wonder what they’re using it for/what parts of calculus they use?

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