March 10, 2016 6:13 AM EST

Ask experts how to fix American education and you’ll hear the same answer again and again: more courses in STEM–or science, technology, engineering and math. In his new book, Andrew Hacker takes issue with that idea–specifically, mandating geometry, calculus and trigonometry. These subjects are not only unnecessary for most careers, he argues, but so difficult that they can turn people off education entirely. Research shows that struggling with math requirements is the No. 1 academic reason students don’t finish high school or college–even if they’re pursuing degrees in art or cosmetology. Of course, this doesn’t mean U.S. schools shouldn’t improve math programs; it’s important for students to master arithmetic and basic algebra (think: solve for x). But overly tough expectations have created “intractable barriers for students whose aptitudes lie outside of mathematics,” Hacker writes. And that’s a problem, he concludes, not a solution.

–SARAH BEGLEY

This appears in the March 21, 2016 issue of TIME.

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