Note: The links below starting with On... expand to short diatribes distilled from my strong opinions about various aspects of education. Read at your peril and feel free to debate with me over email. I readily welcome informed opposing viewpoints.
There were a number of variations on this theme over the years. Most notable was my attempt to include more girls in the class following guidelines to make computer science more practical. These versions (advertised to the student body in advance) included applications to a variety of non-computer-science fields. However, my experience is that the games-based courses were more successful for all genders.
In 2009, the College Board discontinued the AP Computer Science AB exam. According to the released statistics, it was easy to infer that the AB exam was not profitable due to low enrollment. I can guess why the AB enrollment was lower than that of A: AB was a lot harder, containing twice as much material. However, I found it aggravating—and still do—that the decision made was to jettison the harder course instead of to work on ways to train teachers better to cover the hard material. I did it for six years and it was hard to cover everything, but it was most certainly possible. In my opinion, the material that remained in the A course could hardly be called suitable for "advanced placement". In each of my three years teaching A, I finished covering the core material by around Christmas and spent the rest of the year attacking other topics. This may have been fun for teacher and student alike, but I see this change as another sign of the "dumbing down" of education.
This course taught essentially one skill, with the usual variations: how to solve for x. I enjoyed teaching my highly skilled and hard-working students to perform this skill, required by the school's curriculum and by the expectations of competitive college-bound high school students. However, I find the skill almost completely useless! Computers can perform this skill better than humans, so why do we spend so long teaching it?
I can think of a few arguments:
Here are my responses:
For more along these lines, see Conrad Wolfram tell the same story.
So, do I think any given school should just stop teaching how to solve for x? Unfortunately, no, I don't. In today's American educational system, students are best served by preparing them for the college entrance exams and to meet the college entrance expectations. These include a solid grounding in solving for x. It is regretfully up to national educational leaders to start the conversation of how to get from the current antiquated form of math education to a system that uses today's technologies to the fullest to prepare students for tomorrow's changing needs. When that starts, schools should jump right on board, but until then, the best a school can do is to squeeze in as much real math education around the required curriculum.
Both schools that I worked for had Algebra II as the final required math course. However, the college counselors often (rightly) insisted that students continue to take math to improve their chances at college admission. I agree that Algebra II does not finally answer all the questions a student should have to get a basic understanding of numbers. But I think that a standard Precalculus course (or a bridge course such as the one I taught) does an even worse job.
In my estimation, the vast majority of students who might wish to stop math after Algebra II will not have highly quantitative or numerically analytical careers. The abstract mathematics taught in Precalculus does not serve this population well. I have quite a solid understanding of Precalculus concepts, yet the only time I can recall using them outside of my work was to inform my brother (a mechanical engineer) that the optimal setting on the shower knob was at π on the unit circle.
Yet, I have used a higher math skill routinely during my adult life: the ability to reason about finances. This I learned from my father and from an AP Economics teacher who wisely strayed from the curriculum. Students who excel at math are likely able to figure most of the details out on their own—the math isn't really that hard. However, the students who need to be urged to continue past Algebra II might not be so lucky.
High schools should equip all students with the ability to make informed financial decisions as adults. This includes a basic understanding of how the stock market works as well as major other investment and debt vehicles. For example, a high school graduate should be able to figure out whether to lease a car or take out a loan to buy one, based on current and expected income, investments, and mortgage payments. By not teaching our students how to do this, we are handicapping those students whose parents can't teach them and perpetuating current inequity to the next generation.
In sum, I would love to see courses such as the one I taught (an equivalent of which exists at many schools whose offerings I've examined) become part of history and a course teaching basic financial know-how become a part of the future.