‘Math literacy’ or remedial algebra?

Remedial math is getting an overhaul at community colleges, reports the Chicago Tribune. Algebra-heavy courses are giving way to “math literacy.”

Unlike a lot of people her age, 20-year-old Kelsey Pearsall-Brandon of Lake in the Hills has a clear career goal. She wants to be a police officer. But something is standing in her way:

-24 ≤ 5x + 1 < 6

That was a problem put to her recently in a remedial algebra class at Elgin Community College. The class cost more than $400, and she must pass it to earn a degree that could boost her job prospects.

Does she think she’ll use algebra as a cop? “Not really,” she said. “I gotta catch the criminal. … I’m not going to be finding X.”

Many students’ career plans require statistics and quantitative reasoning, but not algebra, experts say. Many students who place into remedial math never earn a certificate or degree. They get frustrated and drop out.

“(Remedial) mathematics is the graveyard,” said Anthony Bryk of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “This is where aspirations go to die. If you can’t get through this, you can’t go on to career opportunities.”

Some Illinois community colleges are “giving students a chance to speed through remedial math by tackling practical problems instead of theoretical ones,” reports the Tribune. “Math literacy” is designed for students in nontechnical fields. Kathy Almy and Heather Foes, professors at Rockford’s Rock Valley College, designed a math literacy course.

 Teachers give students real-world questions — figuring out how an Internet video goes viral, for example, or evaluating a scientific claim about global warming — and then show them how to use math to find the answers.

Almy said students who struggle with math respond to practicality.

The passing rate — 65 percent — is about the same as other remedial math classes at Rock Valley, but math literacy students can move on to college math after one semester, rather than two or three.

Skeptics say the course won’t help students with very weak basic skills or those who hope to major in science or technology.

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Remedial remake — Joanne Jacobs

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