The ‘anyway’ argument

Stop requiring college students to write essays, argues adjunct Rebecca Schuman in Slate.

Students hate writing them so much that they buyborrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.

College instructors hate grading papers,” Schuman adds. “Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers.”

Schuman suggests using written and oral tests to measure students’ ability to understand what they’ve read — or been told to read.

This is The “Anyway” Argument, writes Matt Reed on Confessions of a Community College Dean.

The Anyway Argument goes like this: requirement X is widely loathed, and causes all manner of angst among both students and faculty. Outside of a few specialized fields, most students will never need the skills built by requirement X anyway. So why not just drop it?

Carnegie’s Statway is an Anyway project. Most developmental math sequences are designed to move students through algebra to pre-calculus and calculus. But most students don’t want to go into STEM fields and won’t use calculus — or advanced algebra. So why require a course that generates lots of attrition? Statway channels non-STEM majors into statistics.

In the case of Statway (and similar projects), it’s fair to ask why a prospective commercial artist needs to be able to calculate second derivatives.  In the case of Schuman’s argument, one may well ask whether a prospective business major really needs to be able to delve into a nuanced subject for ten pages with MLA citation format.

. . . The problem with the Anyway Argument, I think, is that it works best in hindsight. If you know from the outset what you want to do, and you’re right, then it’s possible to identify requirements that seem extraneous.

As a former English major I may be biased, but I think it’s a lot easier for people to make their way in the world without advanced algebra than to succeed without being able to write clearly and persuasively. Business people write reports, citing evidence to support their points of view.

Years ago, my uncle, a successful businessman, analyzed three possible locations for his daughter’s store. (He must have sent a copy to my mother — who knows why? — because I read it.) Citing traffic, parking and  rental costs, he made the case for the “boring” location. The math was simple. The writing was strong. The business has thrived.

‘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.

Getting past algebra

Algebra scares many community college students, writes Sophie Quinton in National Journal. Two-thirds place into remedial math. Fewer than one in four who start below the college level earn a certificate or degree in eight years.

Arica Hawley used to dread math class. She would look at problems and not even know where to begin. When Hawley, 37, went back to Tacoma (Wash.) Community College last fall to finish her associate’s degree, she placed into a pre-algebra course—eighth-grade-level material.

Students who test two or three levels below Algebra II, which is considered college math, have to pass several remedial courses before they can start earning college credit. ”It eats up time and financial aid, especially when we have students who have to retake those courses three, four, and five times,” says John Kellermeier, a TCC math instructor.

Instead of remedial math, Hawley took Statway, a college-level statistics course for students who haven’t mastered high school math. She earned a college math credit.

The Carnegie Foundation developed two one-year courses — Statway and a quantitative-reasoning course called Quantway — to get students out of the remedial rut. Statway includes high school algebra and college-level statistics. Quantway starts with developmental math, but moves to college-level quantitative reasoning in the second semester.

Both courses allow faculty to teach algebra relevant to the college-level material, and to public debates and questions students will face in the workforce. In Statway, students learn to read graphs, determine probability, and detect bias in data. They brainstorm ways to prove or disprove theories, like the assertion by astrologers that birth dates determine personality traits.

Students are grouped into threes or fours and may stay in those groups throughout the course. The groups work through the material together every day, and are responsible for keeping each other up to speed.

. . . The courses also include exercises that address math anxiety. Many students believe they’re just not ‘math people.’ “If we don’t change how they see themselves, they’re going to realize a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Bernadine Chuck Fong, the director of Carnegie’s developmental math initiative.

Statway was launched in the fall of 2011 at 19 community colleges and two state universities. Fifty-one percent of students earned a college credit within a year, compared to 5.9 percent of community college students who start in remedial math.

Thirty campuses in 11 states now are implementing Statway and 22 are using Quantway.

Students do better when they believe they can succeed, feel that they belong in the classroom, and feel connected to their peers and teacher, says Fong.

Changing Equations on remedial math

Redesigning remedial math can improve community college completion rates, concludes Changing Equations. Pamela Burdman wrote the report for LearningWorks, an Oakland-based nonprofit. Some community colleges are stressing statistics and quantitative reasoning over intermediate algebra for non-STEM students.

Early results – including a dramatic jump from 6 to 51 percent in the proportion of students completing college-level math in their first year of college — are lending credence to the theory that the alternative pathways are better tailored to academic majors that don’t require intermediate algebra. About a quarter of California’s 112 community colleges, as well as numerous colleges in at least a dozen other states, have begun to develop these alternatives for non-STEM (science, technology, engineer, and math) students.

Intermediate algebra is a major barrier to graduation, the report finds. Most entering community college students place into remedial math. Eighty percent fail to complete the sequence and pass college-level math.  remedial math

Half of Blacks and Latinos start community college with very weak math skills. Only 6 percent of students who place into the lowest remedial math level will pass a college-level math course within three years.

“We need to think hard about how remedial math sequences can best serve students who don’t want to become scientists or engineers,” says Linda Collins, executive director of LearningWorks.

California is accelerating remediation in math and English, but transfer policies are getting the way, reports Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed.

A faculty-led group called the California Acceleration Project has helped 42 of the state’s community colleges offer redesigned, faster versions of remedial math and English tracks. But the group’s co-founders said they would be able to make much more progress if the University of California changed its transfer credit requirements.

Myra Snell, a math professor at Los Medanos College, created Path2Stats to move remedial students quickly to college-level statistics. Her students “were more than four times as likely to complete college-level math as their peers in traditional remedial sequences,” writes Fain.

Currently 21 community colleges offer similar math courses.

But UC requires transfers to take intermediate algebra. Accelerated math doesn’t include enough algebra, according to UC.

After 12th grade, it’s back to middle school

Community college means a return to middle school for many students, writes Kenneth Terrell in The Atlantic, citing a recent National Center on Education and the Economy report on college and career readiness. “A large fraction of students are leaving the 12th grade with a high-school diploma, and they’re about to begin a course of studies at the 8th grade level,” said Marc Tucker, president of the NCEE.

NCEE randomly selected one community college in each of seven states, then examined eight of the most popular programs–accounting, automotive technology, biotech/electrical technology, business, criminal justice, early childhood education, information technology/computer programming, nursing, and the general education track. NCEE researchers examined the programs’ textbooks, assignments and exams to see what math and English skills truly were necessary to succeed.

While the researchers found that “the reading and writing currently required of students in initial credit-bearing courses in community colleges is not very complex or cognitively demanding,” the report’s math findings are even more striking. The report also states that middle school math–”arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations”–were more central to the community college math courses than the Algebra II most high schools emphasize in college readiness programs. “What really is needed in our community colleges–and really for the majority of Americans in the work that they do–is middle school math,” Tucker said.

Raising admission standards would exclude most would-be community college students. And for what purpose?  Only a few “will ever need to use advanced math skills in college or the workplace,” according to NCEE, which equates requiring advanced algebra to requiring Latin. ”It looks like we’re denying high school graduates the opportunity to take credit-bearing courses because they can’t master math that they don’t need, and that seems very unfair,” Tucker said.

I can’t pass algebra

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?”

NCEE: Rethink readiness

What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? Community colleges expect little of first-year students — and get even less, concludes the National Center on Education and The Economy.

The report paints a grim picture.

High school graduates have trouble reading textbooks written at the 11th- to 12th-grade level, so instructors provide study aids to help poor readers get by. Students do little writing. When they do write, ”instructors tend to have very low expectations for grammatical accuracy, appropriate diction, clarity of expression, reasoning and the ability to present a logical argument or offer evidence in support of claims.”

Despite taking high school algebra, geometry and often advanced algebra, most students are placed in remedial math. They’re not prepared for “college math,” which amounts to “Algebra 1.25,” basic algebra with a bit of geometry and statistics. Yet what students most need to succeed in college courses is mastery of “middle school mathematics, especially arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations.”

Cover edit 3

Community colleges enroll 45 percent of U.S college students: About half hope to earn a bachelor’s degree, while the rest are pursuing a vocational credential, NCEE estimates.

It’s not enough for community colleges to raise expectations, the report concludes.

We need to bear in mind that a very large fraction of high school graduates does not meet the very low expectations that community colleges currently have of them. The nation may have to learn to walk before it runs, which means that it is important, first, to enable our high school students to meet the current very low standards before we ratchet those standards up.

Common Core Standards, if implemented well, will help, eventually, the report concludes. But there’s a long way to go.

Researchers analyzed textbooks, tests, assignments, student work and grading at seven community colleges in different states. The study focused on general education and popular career programs: Accounting, Automotive Technology, Biotech/Electrical Technology, Business, Criminal Justice, Early Childhood Education, Information Technology/Computer Programming 1 and Nursing.

Only one program at one college required mastery of advanced algebra, the study found.

Increasingly, high schools are requiring students to take Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II, with hopes they’ll make it to Calculus. That should be only one option, the report recommends.

Mastery of Algebra II is widely thought to be a prerequisite for success in college and careers. Our research shows that that is not so. . . . fewer than five percent of American workers and an even smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the (algebra to calculus) sequence in their college or in the workplace.

Students shouldn’t take algebra till they really understand middle-school math, the report advises.  If they wait till 10th grade, that’s OK. They can study statistics, data analysis, applied geometry and/or mathematical modeling to prepare for a range of careers.

States should “build alternative math pathways through the last two years of high school that are aligned with student interests and career plans,” says Harvard Education Professor Robert Schwartz. “If the Report’s assertion is correct —that only 5 percent of jobs require the mathematics embodied in the calculus pathway —then our education system should focus more on the mathematics that most young people will actually use in their civic and work life, e.g. statistics, data, probability.”

However, the path to 12th-grade calculus usually starts with eighth-grade algebra. At 12 or 13, students would have to decide whether they’re aiming for a university degree in engineering or science. Imagine a STEM-prep track for 5 percent of students — or even 20 percent — with everyone else preparing for a low-tech university degree or a community college job training program. The future engineers and physicists are likely to predominantly Asian-American, white, middle class and male.

An all-day conference on the report will be livestreamed today starting at 9 am EDT.

Factory workers need algebra, trig

During the recession, manufacturers laid off 2 million workers. Now some are hiring again, but 21st-century manufacturing jobs require math skills that many applicants lack, reports NPR.

 North American Tool Corp.’s Jim Hoyt has two openings right now for his northwest Illinois company, and he expects to continue hiring. But he often sees the same problem crop up during the application process.

“I’ll write a few numbers down, mostly numbers with decimal points, because that’s what we use in manufacturing, and have them add them or subtract them, or divide by two,” Hoyt says. Job applicants often can’t do the math.

Most manufacturers use CNC, or computer numerical control, equipment. If the operator makes an error in calculation or input, it can crash the equipment, costing tens of thousands of dollars.

 These days, many employers don’t want to teach the basics and risk damaging equipment. So students have turned to vocational programs at schools like the Richard J. Daley College on Chicago’s South Side to learn how to operate CNC machines.

Ray Prendergast, who directs the college’s manufacturing programs, says algebra and basic trigonometry are prerequisites. The college’s admissions testing measures entry-level proficiency. But Prendergast says, “The majority of students who come into my program are not at English 101, and they’re not at Math 118.”

So Daley College offers a remedial bridge program to qualify students for training in manufacturing.

Why our kids hate math

“Our kids hate math” because they’re pushed to learn higher math before they’ve mastered the basics, writes Patrick Welsh, who teaches at T.C. Williams High in Virginia, in USA Today.

The experience of T.C. Williams teacher Gary Thomas, a West Point graduate who retired from the Army Corps of Engineers as a colonel, is emblematic of the problem. This year, Thomas had many students placed in his Algebra II class who slid by with D’s in Algebra I, failed the state’s Algebra I exam and were clueless when it came to the most basic pre-requisites for his course. “They get overwhelmed. Eventually they give up,” Thomas says.

Thirty-one percent of eighth-graders took algebra in 2007, nearly double the percentage compared to 1990, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. In California, 54 percent take algebra in eighth grade. But many repeat it in ninth grade — and still do poorly.

My colleague Sally Miller . . . is the first to warn that too much math too soon is counterproductive. When Miller asked one of her geometry classes what 8 x 4 was, no one could come up with the answer without going to a calculator. “In the lower grades, more time has to be devoted to practicing basic computational skills so that they are internalized and eventually come naturally.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s eighth-grade algebra classes have a ”negative effect on most students, especially those students who weren’t stellar in math background,” says Charles Clotfelter, a Duke professor who studied the effects. Doing poorly “knocked them back on their heels.”

“It is time to ensure that all kids absorb the fundamentals of math — computation, fractions, percentages and decimals — first before moving on to the next level,” Welsh concludes.

A frightening number of students never learn math fundamentals. It’s the single greatest barrier to success in community colleges, which attract the un-stellar students. Students who’ve passed high school math classes — including a class called algebra — don’t understand fractions, percentages or decimals and can’t multiply 8 x 4 without a calculator.

Texas community colleges redo remedial math

Community colleges in Texas will adopt a radical redesign of developmental math, reports Inside Higher Ed. The Carnegie Foundation and the Dana Center at the University of Texas have developed Mathways, a new approach to helping community college students get up to speed in the math skills they’ll need to complete a credential.

. . . remedial students who intend on majoring in a science- or math-based field will still take a traditional, algebra-based developmental course. But other students might take classes in statistics or quantitative reasoning, subsets of math that could prove more relevant to their careers and present less of a barrier to emerging from remedial education. Students who are undecided on a major are likely to be steered toward statistics, with “bridge courses” available later on if they select a science or math major.

“Not having algebra doesn’t mean you haven’t had rigorous preparation,” said Rey Garcia, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. “What’s the point of taking a course that isn’t going to be useful to you in your work life? As long as we maintain high standards for rigor, that pathway is as meaningful as an algebra-based pathway.”

Two Texas community colleges in El Paso and Houston have piloted Carnegie’s Statways. This fall, six or seven colleges will offer the statistics program and it’s expected to be at all 50 of the state’s community colleges by fall 2013.

The quantitative reasoning program and a reimagined algebra-based remediation will be rolled out in subsequent years, first in small batches and then statewide.

Here’s a Dana Center webinar on Mathways: