Today, American high schools offer a sequence of algebra, geometry, more algebra, pre-calculus and calculus (or a “reform” version in which these topics are interwoven). ... This highly abstract curriculum is simply not the best way to prepare a vast majority of high school students for life.
For instance, how often do most adults encounter a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation? Do they need to know what constitutes a “group of transformations” or a “complex number”? Of course professional mathematicians, physicists and engineers need to know all this, but most citizens would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed and how the statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood.
A math curriculum that focused on real-life problems would still expose students to the abstract tools of mathematics, especially the manipulation of unknown quantities. But there is a world of difference between teaching “pure” math, with no context, and teaching relevant problems that will lead students to appreciate how a mathematical formula models and clarifies real-world situations.
--Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford, NYT, on practical math