Algebra mastery shouldn’t be the college degree dealbreaker

Factoring polynomials is sometimes the one obstacle that stands between a community college student and the chance of earning a degree. And it looks like California is trying to do something to change that.

It’s no secret that when students get tracked into college remedial courses–typically math, but also English and writing courses–they get discouraged by having to pay for material they should have learned in high school and for which they earn no college credit.

So it’s encouraging to see that the California Community College system, the largest in the nation with more than two million students, is starting to rethink its assumptions about remedial classes. It’s a move that’s long overdue given its dismal record of graduation–only 30 percent earn an associate’s degree or advance to a four-year university.

According to this story by an NPR station in San Francisco, a number of changes are afoot, including accelerating the way these courses are taught so students don’t languish in no-credit classes for several semesters.

But the most interesting change was flipping the script on the kind of math colleges are asking students to master.

Called pre-statistics, it’s a one-semester course that teaches only the math skills necessary for students to go on and complete Statistics 101 and graduate. Berkeley City College has been piloting about six different sections of the class. The push to convert all of City College’s remedial math classes to accelerated ones has been led by professor Daniel Najjar. He says most of the skills taught in remedial algebra, like factoring polynomials, are ones the students will never use again if they’re liberal arts majors.

“The concept of this is to eliminate the algebra that you really don’t need for statistics, and there’s very little that you need, actually,” he says. He adds that many students also have bad memories of learning algebra in middle school.

I’m not going to try to argue that algebra skills aren’t valuable. But the way this subject has long been taught in U.S. schools–as rote memorization and an abstraction that seems wholly disconnected to real-world skills–often leave students discouraged and fearful about their math skills.

I didn’t have to take remedial math in college, but I avoided taking my college math requirement because I didn’t see the relevance of algebra to anything in my future, and as a result I didn’t see myself as a “math person”–until I landed in my first statistics course. Suddenly math made sense; it gave me a frame to understand the research I read and the news I consumed.

There is pushback against the idea that “accelerated” remedial courses is just a fancy way of dressing up academic shortcuts, and I agree that certain skills in writing and reading must mastered and can’t be brushed over. But I think giving liberal arts major another path to math mastery does not equate to cutting corners. The co-founder of the California Acceleration Project agreed:

“When we put them into a pre statistics course, they’re getting a rich and meaningful course in statistics…and that that’s the math they should focus on,” (English professor Katie Hern says. “It’s not a lowering of standards, it’s a clarity of math that should be used.”

College remediation is a big problem in this nation. As many as 1 in 4 students who enter college the fall after high school graduation had to enroll in remedial coursework during their first year of college, costing their families nearly $1.5 billion annually. And as one study pointed out,  students in remedial courses are 74 percent less likely to graduate than non-remedial students.

Yes, the crisis starts in high school. But our colleges also need to own their part of this crisis, and seek practical, creative solutions to getting past the polynomial predicament.


Photo courtesy of KALW radio.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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