Failure rates are very high for community college students who start in remedial or low-level math classes, writes Community College Dean. Students who struggle with math are likely to drop out; remedial English students are more persistent. A remedial math instructor blames calculator dependency: High schools let students use calculators; the college does not.
:The dean worries about students who don’t know when they’ve pushed the wrong calculator button because they have no sense of what’s a reasonable or ridiculous answer. Apparently, these students haven’t used their calculators to achieve deeper or higher understanding of mathematics.
But he also worries if developing number sense is “worth flunking out huge cohorts of students because their high schools let them use calculators and we don’t.”
At my job, I use statistics all the time. Most of the statistics I use are computer generated. Excel and its progeny (I’m an OpenOffice fan, myself) can crunch huge sets of numbers much faster than I ever could, leaving me free to do other things. Although I like knowing that, in a pinch, I could do a whole bunch of arithmetic myself, I typically don’t. And in most jobs, most people don’t. I agree that it would be better to have the ability than not to have it, but if the cost of holding the line against calculators is turning half a generation away from college, is it worth it?
This raises another issue: How much math do community college students need? Are we asking students to learn math skills they’ll never use in vocational classes or in future jobs?
Like the dean, I learned to do mental math in the pre-calculator era. But I’ve encountered many successful professionals — OK, journalists — who manage to get along with very minimal math skills.