Javier Cabral made it through high school without passing algebra, but hit a wall in community college, he writes in Zócalo Public Square. He failed algebra seven times in 4 1/2 years at Pasadena City College and, finally, dropped out to pursue a writing career.
I coasted through middle school arithmetic classes, and, in high school pre-algebra, when math bit me in the rear, I bit back and weaseled my way to a C by teaching my teacher—who was having troubles with his wife at the time—how to play “Angel Baby” on the acoustic guitar. Geometry came next, and I passed with no trouble.
Fast forward to my still Algebra-less senior year in high school. Without a passing grade in algebra, I couldn’t graduate—but I got lucky again. Apparently, my problem with algebra was shared by many other students and posed a threat to the pristine record of my “California Distinguished” high school. The administrators decided to count Accounting I as an algebra equivalent. I passed that with a B+.
He hoped to transfer from PCC to a four-year institution, but was placed two classes below the transfer requirement class, Statistics 50. He failed. Eventually, Cabral was diagnosed with a math disability, which got him extra time on tests. That didn’t help. He tried computer-based pre-algebra and failed that. Finally, his counselor told him about an intensive new class, Exploring Topics in Mathematics, which would teach “quantitative literacy.” If he passed, he’d be eligible for transfer-level Statistics 50.
Before long, going to class started to feel like a family reunion. It was, dare I say it, fun. Everybody shared the pain, and there was a relieving sense of acceptance. (Professor Jay) Cho taught us how to complete linear equation problems, something that used to give me headaches, by relating them to blood alcohol levels when you drink and drive. (It worked. I got a B on that exam.) He used the almost-daily tardiness of the Goth girl to teach us relative frequency approximation of probability. I loved it. It was a modern-day version of Stand and Deliver.
Twenty of the 35 students passed the class, a high success rate for a developmental class. Cabral passed! Then he failed Statistics 50, also taught by Cho.
“Math is becoming a filter for a lot of people,” Cho told me recently. “Structurally, we are designed to lose a lot of students. The state gives us a lot of money for nothing. Returning students are forced to retake the class and shut out valuable space for new students.” In Cho’s view, his new teaching style addresses the problem. In my view, Cho’s an amazing teacher, but not a miracle worker.
Cabral doesn’t believe he’ll ever be able to solve quadratic equations, no matter how hard he tries. He wants to go to a university to “learn more about art, philosophy, literature, and history,” he writes. “Math requirements will prevent that. Should they?”