So, if you already feel yourself mounting a reaction to the title, this post isn’t for you. Like anything you’re good at, you can’t imagine that other people can’t “become” good at it too… if they only had a better attitude, different curriculum, a better teacher, etc. STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are all the rage – most universities have watched their STEM-majors double in the past few years, so there is a ton of emphasis on not only high school math, but college-level math in high school. Sure, with 10,000 hours it’s possible to become an expert in anything. This is not that.
You’ve heard me tell you that YOU are the best guidance counselor for your teen. That extends beyond math, obviously, but I’m not going to tell you whether I think it’s right or wrong to push your non-mathy teens into Calculus, that’s for you to decide. In this post, we’re going to embrace the possibility that some of our teens don’t enjoy math – have no interest in STEM – want to study as little math as possible, and certainly, don’t want a career that requires a lot of math. It is possible to lead a happy, healthy, educated life without loving math. That is this.
High School Math
How much is required? First, you have to answer that question for your state. If you live in a state with specific high school graduation requirements, then you’ll want to be sure you comply with them. Compliance assures your teen’s diploma will be valid and legal as they exit high school and move forward in life. State Requirements Look-Up Everything that follows in this post assumes you’re making decisions within the framework of homeschooling lawfully. The truth of the matter is that most of you don’t have graduation requirements, rather your state offers up their public school math program as a suggested course for you to follow. Compliance with public school suggestions are always up to you.
What subjects count? Let’s assume your state lets you choose your curriculum, in that case, you have a lot of freedom here. We’re going to go off-book in a minute, but before we do, let’s review a typical k-12 math sequence and roughly when it’s taught:
- Arithmetic (grades k-8)
- Pre Algebra (grades 6-9)
- Algebra 1 (grades 8-10)
- Geometry (grades 9-10)
- Algebra 2 (grades 10-12)
- Trigonometry / Pre-Calculus (grades 10-12)
- Calculus (grades 10-12)
The problem for some students happens around Pre- Algebra.
Algebra, in general, can be when the bottom falls out of your otherwise competent student’s success. If you ask any adult that “isn’t good at math” where they fell apart, they’ll likely tell you it was in algebra. If you’ve hit a rough patch in Pre-Algebra or Algebra 1, you have a few options.
- Do more arithmetic – speed and accuracy are key. You may be surprised how weak most teens are at arithmetic, and in my opinion, this is likely the culprit. Forget how the transcript “looks” for a minute and think big-picture: no matter what your teen does for college or a career or in life, they need solid arithmetic skills- this is as important as knowing how to read. If their arithmetic is weak, make it PRIORITY #1. No exceptions. (see my suggestions for this at the bottom)
- Slow down the pace – assuming the rate of learning new material is the problem, rather than lacking a foundation in arithmetic, slowing down might make it more manageable.
- Change curriculum- while I hate this suggestion, it is an option. The problem with curriculum hopping in math, is that the scope and sequence almost never match, and you’ll be left with holes, but the issue here, is that you won’t know you have holes.
- Change tracks- if you’re sure that arithmetic isn’t a weakness, and your teen is an otherwise fine student capable of learning new things, you do have the option of switching to applied math! It is possible that your teen just doesn’t like math. I can feel you gasp through my computer, but if you can wrap your head around the possibility that they might not need as much math as you’re planning, you may find one of the applied math options really hits a home run. (more about that in a few minutes)
Math in College
Before we can talk about the alternative paths in high school math, most parents protest immediately because they fear their student won’t be able to either (a) get into college (b) do college math. Let’s look at math in college for a moment and some of the myths. First, the high school sequence above is actually harder (higher) than the math required for most college degrees. This is true! Most parents believe that math through Calculus is required for all college admission, when in fact, math through Calculus is only required for the smallest of career choices. Let’s learn some vocab:
GENERAL EDUCATION: the core requirements everyone at that college must take in order to graduate from that college. General Education requirements are as few as 5 classes in some Associate of Applied Science programs, to the more typical 20 courses at a 4-year college. You’ll find that General Education requirements can be VERY different from one school to the next.
MAJOR: the requirements beyond the General Education courses necessary to earn your degree. You get to choose your major which should align with your career goals.
Here are some truths:
- Most non-STEM majors don’t have math requirements. Their General Education requirement will have some type of math, but you can shop around for low math colleges.
- General Education requirements across the board usually don’t require math above the College Algebra level (roughly equivalent to Algebra 2 with a chapter or two of Pre-Calculus for good measure).
- Most 4-year colleges and all community colleges offer math classes for every level. Even if you enter college unprepared for college math, the college is usually arranged to help you succeed.
- General Education requirements in math sometimes allow science and technology to count in the same category, meaning it’s sometimes possible to avoid all math entirely by taking an extra science or computer course.
- There are 2 places you have to check to see the type and amount of math required:
- The college’s General Education requirement (this will be the same for everyone, so if the college requires Statistics or Trig in their General Education requirements, there is no way around this). Look for General Education requirements that ask for no more than 3 credits of math (1 class) and with numbers as close as possible to 100. For instance, MATH105 should be easier than MATH121.
- Your target major at each target school. Some majors just require a lot of math, so if you’re looking at a math-heavy major, there isn’t much I can offer. However, math-light majors can vary from one college to another! If your teen wants to become a History Teacher, you’ll find most colleges don’t require College Algebra- so if your target school does, keep looking.
|American Sign Language Interpreter
Broadcasting / TV/ Radio
Emergency Medicine / Paramedic
Hair and Beauty
Human Services/ Social Work
K-12 Teacher (non-STEM)
Lawyer / Legal
Police and Law Enforcement
Sales and Marketing
Computer Aided Drafting
Engineering (as a category)
K-12 Teacher (STEM)
Video Game Design
Jennifer’s tips for students who really, really, really hate math
- Spend a lot of time investigating careers and college majors. You need to know if your career goal works for those who hate math. If you’re looking at a Math-Heavy career, you’ll have to embrace math or change career trajectories!
- If you’ve found a career and major that are Math-Light, start making a list of colleges with low general education math requirements. The lowest you’ll find is usually called “Mathematics for Liberal Arts” and the lowest amount you’ll usually find is 3 credits – 1 course. If you’re seeing general education requirements higher than this, keep looking.
- Be sure to look for hidden maths that sneak into a major. Math can lurk in classes with names that contain these words in their title:
- See if you can test out of the math requirement in high school using CLEP or DSST exams at your target schools. (not all colleges will accept exam credit!) This approach has several benefits.
- Study in your own homeschool without stress or pressure.
- Earn college credit as pass/fail, removing the worry about your GPA.
- Start your first semester without a math prerequisite (often you can’t register for science until you’ve finished math).
- Start (and finish) college without having to do a single math class.
- If you plan to earn your degree as a distance learning student/online, many of these programs also partner with college-credit-businesses that allow you to complete some courses at home (in high school) in a self-paced and open book setting. These partnerships are a wonderful way to earn credit, but outside of the partnership, you may find that the credit won’t transfer. The company with them MOST college partnerships is called Study.com, but there are others. (Straighterline, Saylor Academy, Sophia, etc.) The lowest transferable math they offer is College Algebra, but their partnership extends to over 100 colleges, so it’s worth considering. You can also find math options here.
CLEP Testing: College Mathematics CLEP Exam Website
DSST Testing: Mathematics for Liberal Arts DSST Testing Website
Applied Math Courses in High School
If you’ve caught your breath, and have decided that you may not have to spend all 4 years of high school in pursuit of Calculus credit, I want to offer you some alternative math courses that you can use in place of the traditional sequence we discussed earlier. Using applied math takes the “theory” of math, and puts it into “application” or real-world use of numbers. For many students that struggle with math, you’ll see a huge improvement when they begin studying applied math- this happened to my 12th grader. After struggling through 3 years of Saxon Algebra 1/2 (aka pre-algebra) with barely passing marks every year, (yes, he did the same book 3 years in a row and it never “clicked” for him) my 12th-grade son is now a solid “A” math student in Consumer Math. He has turned the corner, we found a way for him to be successful! I only wish I’d started him in applied math years earlier.
EDIT: I first wrote that about my son in 2019 but kept it in when I republished this post in 2020. Since then, he finished an associate and bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management. His degrees each required 1 math class (the same class counted for both) and he met this requirement by taking a Business Statistics class in college.
In most cases, you can find these books through your favorite online bookstore.
Consumer Math: I spent months reviewing the top 4 publishers in this space, and my hands-down favorite is A Beka. I know some of you aren’t Christian, but besides an occasional bible verse, you won’t find a strong Christian theme in this book. The content is exceptional. Full color, practical, easy to read, excellent explanations, manageable lesson sizes, can be done over 1 year or 2. Note: You don’t need the half-dozen books they sell for the “complete kit” you just need the Teacher Book (answers) and Student Book. Highly recommend.
Culinary Math: This is my wheelhouse. I taught Culinary Math for 10 years at a community college early in my career. If your student wants to be a chef, they’ll be miles ahead of their culinary school peers if they start culinary math now. While Culinary Math is a variation on arithmetic, the terminology is a little different. Beyond converting recipes and measurements, the student will learn to calculate food and labor costs, convert between weight and volume, and understand purchasing. The textbook I taught from would be great for a homeschool course: Culinary Math by Linda Blocker/Julia Hill.
Math for Health Care Professionals: Review of the metric system, reading drug labels, medicine cups, syringes, intravenous administration bags, dosages, basic intravenous administration, and basic dosage by weight units.
Personal Finance: There are dozens of curriculum options since I get to plug my favorites, I love Dave Ramsey’s Foundations in Personal Finance High School course. It can be taken in person, via DVD, or online.
Introduction to Accounting / Bookkeeping: Many homeschool curriculum companies offer complete products if you don’t see it under “math” try looking under “electives.”
Statistics: For visual learners, Statistics might be a great fit. Statistics use a lot of charts, graphs, and spreadsheets. While traditional Advanced Placement students usually have to wait until after Pre-Calculus to take Statistics, that’s because they want the students to finish their core first. Most people can study statistics with a mathematical level of around Pre-Algebra or Algebra 1. There is a college-credit exam for students who want to take their learning to the next level. See the DSST link above.
Game Theory & Probability: This will totally appeal to anyone who likes to play card games, roll dice, flip coins, or talk about sports statistics and winning the lottery. The Great Courses has several really great full curriculum options, but I personally loved the free streaming lecture series called Against All Odds
Industrial Arts Math: Having an aspiring welder, I was thrilled to make Math for Welders his math book this year. What an exciting way to learn and expand on arithmetic using blueprints and diagrams for my son. He finally found the “why” behind much of the math he learned in middle school. (P.S. the manufacturer won’t sell you the teacher’s edition -with answers- but odd answers are provided in the back I found an answer key on eBay)
College Math / and or / Mathematics for Liberal Arts: We spoke earlier about testing out of college math while still in high school. If you’re eager to try this option, you can find out about the content of these 2 exams at the links above. While you might be able to find a college text, you can likely build a curriculum DIY style for either of these courses. This is a great math credit option for 11th or 12th grade. Compare the DSST Math for the Liberal Arts vs. CLEP College Mathematics
High School Math / Practical Math: This isn’t applied math, however, it’s a perfectly acceptable math course title if you’ve decided to dedicate more time to arithmetic. Keep in mind that your teen’s real education is more important than what appears on their transcript, so if you see gaps in their skills, ignore the criticisms and do what needs to be done. A community college accepts all high school graduates at every level of mathematics ability.
Arithmetic for High School Students
Earlier, I wrote “Do more arithmetic – speed and accuracy are key. You may be surprised how weak most teens are at arithmetic, and in my opinion, this is likely the culprit. Forget how the transcript “looks” for a minute and think big-picture: no matter what your teen does for college or a career or in life, they need solid arithmetic skills- this is as important as knowing how to read. If their arithmetic is weak, make it PRIORITY #1. No exceptions.”
If this is where you need to focus, start here: Arithmetic on Khan Academy
Other posts about math
This simple chart demonstrates when your math sequence can generate college credit alongside high school credit.
While College Algebra tends to be the “starter” math for dual enrollment, College Algebra requires (at a minimum) your student finish high school algebra 2 first. What if your teen is ready for college credit by not finished with Algebra 2? There are options!
At some point in your teen’s math sequence, you’ll cross over into math topics that are also part of a typical college math sequence. This transition begins just after Algebra 1, and if parents are aware of this shift, it can result in significant amounts of college credit!
What is the difference between the DSST Math for the Liberal Arts and CLEP College Mathematics exam? ~a question asked by MANY homeschool moms Exam Information