Does Algebra Do More Harm Than Good? CA Community Colleges Rethink Requirements

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Math–and specifically algebra–is a major barrier for students enrolled in community colleges across the country. More than half of community college students are required to take algebra, but almost 80% never do.

The Chancellor of California’s community college system, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, talked about the state’s new alternative math pathways to break down that barrier in an interview with NPR (from member station KQED). Here’s an excerpt:

What are you proposing?

What we’re proposing is to take an honest look at what our requirements are and why we even have them. So, for example, we have a number of courses of study and majors that do not require algebra. We want to take a look at other math pathways, look at the research that’s been done across the country and consider math pathways that are actually relevant to the coursework that the student is pursuing.

You are facing pressure to increase graduation rates — only 48 percent graduate from California community colleges with an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year institution within six years. As we’ve said, passing college algebra is a major barrier to graduation. But is this the easy way out? Just strike the algebra requirement to increase graduation rates instead of teaching math more effectively?

I hear that a lot and unfortunately nothing could be farther from the truth. Somewhere along the lines, since the 1950s, we decided that the only measure of a student’s ability to reason or to do some sort of quantitative measure is algebra. What we’re saying is we want as rigorous a course as possible to determine a student’s ability to succeed, but it should be relevant to their course of study. There are other math courses that we could introduce that tell us a lot more about our students.

Do you buy the argument that there are just some forms of reasoning — whether it’s graphing functions or solving quadratic equations that involve a mental discipline — that may never be actually used literally on the job, but may improve the way young people think?

There’s an argument to be made that much of what we ask students to learn prepares them to be just better human beings, allows them to have reasoning skills. But again, the question becomes: What data do we have that suggests algebra is that course? Are there other ways that we can introduce reasoning skills that more directly relate to what a student’s experience in life is and really helps them in their program of study or career of choice?

We’re certainly not saying that we’re going to commit students to lower levels of math or different kinds of math. What we’re saying is we want more students to have math skills that allow them to keep moving forward. We want to build bridges between the kinds of math pathways we’re talking about that will allow them to continue into STEM majors. We don’t want to limit students.

Source: Does Algebra Do More Harm Than Good? Community Colleges Rethink Requirements | KQED/MindShift