As recently as 2011, “big data” was not very big news. Fast forward five years, and it consistently ranks among business leaders’ top priorities. Depending on whom you ask, the amount of data on everything from consumer behavior to corporate performance is doubling every one or two years, and analysts predictthat shortages of people with the skills to analyze such data may cause high-paying jobs to go begging and companies to lose revenue.
One solution to this challenge? Better access to statistics education in high school.
CTEq’s new analysis of recent federal data on high school statistics courses is hardly reassuring. Most high schoolers attend schools that offer at least some kind of probability and statistics course, but access to gold-standard AP statistics courses is spotty—and it is anything but equitable.
Unfortunately, the picture looks worse for lower-income students:
Not surprisingly, low-income students are less likely take statistics courses:
Geography also plays a big role in who has access to statistics courses, especially AP courses. The AP gap separating town and rural students from suburban students is simply breathtaking:
This gap in access to AP courses has predictable results:
The stakes for improving access to statistics are higher than you might think. Big data can yield big benefits in fields as diverse as public health and weather forecasting, but it can also lead us astray when it loses its moorings in statistical principles.
Take, for example, the case of Google’s Flu Trends, the once-heralded big data initiative that used Google search data to estimate influenza activity in 20 countries. For all its sophisticated algorithms and mountains of data, the enterprise dramatically over-estimated the number of flu cases in the United States, because it rested on a wobbly statistical foundation. We cannot reap the rewards of big data without a healthy supply of statisticians.
So what is to be done? It may be an overreach to require every high school student to take a statistics course, given the many claims on high-schoolers' schedules. That said, expanding access to AP courses in statistics is one feasible strategy for tackling the problem. The National Math + Science Initiative'sCollege Readiness Program has already expanded access to AP courses, including AP statistics, in states around the country.
Another solution may already be afoot. States across the country have recently adopted academic standards that include a dose of probability and statistics in middle and high school. The challenge, of course, is to prepare teachers to teach that new content at a time when many lack a strong foundation in the subject.
Despite some encouraging signs, the fate of statistics in K-12 remains an open question. The answer lies in broader access to courses and better teacher training.