Whoddathunkkit? Well, except for most of us that do math for a living, you mean?
This article in the Washington Post:
Peter discusses a study that shows a correlation between successfully taking mathematics through Algebra II, where properties of functions like exponentials and logarithms are analyzed (along, I guess with complex numbers) in high school and continued success in college and through a career. Whether learning algebra is the reason people are more likely to succeed, or those more likely to succeed usually wind up taking the challenge of Algebra II, is not apparent.
But the study is interesting and should keep up the discussion.
My personal take. Forcing middle schoolers and high schoolers to master problem solving strategies using highly abstract models in mathematics is a way to wire their brains for the complexities of real life events that will present themselves in any and every career path choice, no?
One can teach strategy and problem solving in any specific discipline using the techniques of that discipline, and you get people well versed in that discipline. But mathematics is a 100% in-the-head discipline. Mastering the abstract complexities of mathematical structure and analysis means learning not just how to problem-solve, but it is like learning the actual art of problem solving. It becomes adaptable to any future discipline one winds up in.
Good sound mathematical training is like producing problem-solving stem cells. Later in life, when you need those stem cells to morph into good problem solving skills in some job, you will have them ready for use.
I also believe that Algebra II is attainable for every high school student. Some of the quotes in this article come from students who do not get the subject. It looks like they were/are not well-taught the subject. Perhaps THAT is the real problem? Non-uniformly good teaching.