Say Goodbye To X+Y: Should Community Colleges Abolish Algebra? | KUOW News and Information

Say Goodbye To X+Y: Should Community Colleges Abolish Algebra?

Jul 19, 2017
Originally published on July 19, 2017 8:08 pm

Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads.

It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you're not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?

That's the argument Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, made today in an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel.

At American community colleges, 60 percent of those enrolled are required to take at least one math course. Most — nearly 80 percent — never complete that requirement.

Oakley is among a growing number of educators who view intermediate algebra as an obstacle to students obtaining their credentials — particularly in fields that require no higher level math skills.

Their thinking has led to initiatives like Community College Pathways, which strays away from abstract algebra to engage students in real-world math applications.

What follows is an edited version of Siegel's Q&A with Oakley.

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?

A lot of students in California community colleges are hoping to prepare for a four-year college. What are you hearing from the four-year institutions? Are they at ease with you dropping the requirement? Or would they then make the students take the same algebra course they're not taking at community college?

This question is being raised at all levels of higher education — the university level as well as the community college level. There's a great body of research that's informing this discussion, much of it coming from some of our top universities, like the Dana Center at the University of Texas, or the Carnegie Foundation. So there's a lot of research behind this and I think more and more of our public and private university partners are delving into this question of what is the right level of math depending on which major a student is pursuing.

And there are people writing about concepts of numeracy that may be different from what people have been teaching all this time. Do you have in mind a curriculum that would be more useful than intermediate algebra?

We are piloting different math pathways within our community colleges. We're working with our university partners at CSU and the UC, trying to ensure that we can align these courses to best prepare our students to succeed in majors. And if you think about it, you think about the use of statistics not only for a social science major but for every U.S. citizen. This is a skill that we should have all of our students have with them because this affects them in their daily life.

Are you at all disappointed that the high schools who are sending students to California's community colleges are not already teaching their students these algebra skills before they graduate?

Certainly, these questions come up in K-12 education, but if we consider who really drives K-12 education — that is our four-year university system. By creating requirements, we ensure that K-12 has to align with those requirements. So as long as algebra is the defining math course, K-12 will have to teach it.

Bob Moses , the civil rights activist, started the Algebra Project, teaching concepts of algebra to black students in the South. He saw the teaching of math as a continuation of the civil rights struggle.

Rates of failure in algebra are higher for minority groups than they are for white students. Why do you think that is? Do you think a different curriculum would have less disparate results by ethnic or racial group?

First of all, we've seen in the data from many of the pilots across the country that are using alternative math pathways — that are just as rigorous as an algebra course — we've seen much greater success for students because many of these students can relate to these different kinds of math depending on which program of study they're in. They can see how it works in their daily life and how it's going to work in their career.

The second thing I'd say is yes, this is a civil rights issue, but this is also something that plagues all Americans — particularly low-income Americans. If you think about all the underemployed or unemployed Americans in this country who cannot connect to a job in this economy — which is unforgiving of those students who don't have a credential — the biggest barrier for them is this algebra requirement. It's what has kept them from achieving a credential.

Do you risk a negative form of tracking? Depriving a student of the possibility of saying in community college: "Wow, that quadratic equation is the most interesting thing I've ever seen. I think I'm going to do more stuff like this."

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.

The last thing I'd say is that we are already tracking students. We are already relegating students to a life of below livable wage standards. So we've already done so, whether intentionally or unintentionally.


Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Who needs algebra? The head of California's community college system says that intermediate algebra should be dropped as a graduation requirement for non-STEM majors. That is, majors that are not in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Intermediate algebra is currently the lowest level of math needed to attain an associate's degree or to transfer to a four-year college in California. But algebra is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. Joining me now is the chancellor of the California Community Colleges, Eloy Ortiz Oakley. Welcome to the program, sir.

ELOY ORTIZ OAKLEY: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And what exactly are you proposing?

OAKLEY: Well, what we're proposing is to take an honest look at what our requirements are and why we even have them. So 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 actually are relevant to the course of study that a student is pursuing.

SIEGEL: From what I read, you're 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, and passing algebra has been one of the obstacles. Are you concerned that you might be taking the easy way out? That is, just striking a requirement to increase graduation rates rather than figuring out a better way to teach intermediate algebra.

OAKLEY: Well, I hear that a lot, and unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Somewhere along the line 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. And so what we're saying is we want to have as rigorous a course as possible to determine a student's ability to succeed, but that 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.

SIEGEL: I wanted to play you something that was said by Bob Moses, the civil rights activist who started the Algebra Project, teaching concepts of algebra to black students in the South. And he frames algebra and learning of algebra as a civil rights issue. Here he was in 2014 speaking with StateImpact Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB MOSES: The sharecroppers we worked with were the serfs of the industrial age. So if we are turning kids out of high school who have the equivalent of an eighth grade education, then in effect we are setting them up for the serfdom of the information age.

SIEGEL: Will students who haven't had intermediate algebra be the serfs of the digital age?

OAKLEY: Well, I completely disagree with that notion, although I do agree with the notion that you just played. We want our students to be in the best position to succeed. And so we want them to have every reasoning skill, and we should expect everything of them that we expect from everyone else. The question here is whether or not this single measure is the best way to determine a student's capacity to participate in society.

SIEGEL: Rates of failure in algebra are higher for minority groups than they are for white students. Let me ask you - first, why do you think that is? And second, do you think a different curriculum would have less disparate results by ethnic group or racial group?

OAKLEY: Well, first of all, we've seen - in the data from many of the pilots across the country that are using alternative math pathways that are just as rigorous as an algebra course, we've seen much greater success for students because many of those students can relate to these different kinds of math depending on which program of study they're in. They can see how it works in their daily life and how it's going to work in their career.

The second thing I'd say is, yes, this is a civil rights issue, but this is also something that plagues all Americans, particularly low-income Americans. If you think about all the underemployed or unemployed Americans in this country who cannot connect to a job in this economy, which is unforgiving of those students who don't have a credential, the biggest barrier for them is this algebra requirement. It's what has kept them from achieving a credential.

SIEGEL: Chancellor Oakley, thank you very much for talking with us about it today.

OAKLEY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges.

(SOUNDBITE OF SMITH AND MUDD'S "SHULME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.