Who needs algebra?

Who Needs Algebra? asks NPR.

Sixty percent of the nation’s 12.8 million community college students are required to take at least one course in subject X. Eighty percent of that 60 percent never move on past that requirement.

Let Y = the total percentage of community college students prevented from graduating simply by failing that one subject, X. What is Y?

The answer: Y = 48.

. . . What is X?

The answer: Subject X equals the course sequence known as developmental or remedial math, and especially its final course, algebra.

Algebra is “the single most-failed course” at every community college, says Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, N.Y. Algebra is less a gateway than an impassable barrier.

Ashjame Pendarvis, 20, hopes to major in infant and early childhood education at the University of the District of Columbia Community College. But she’s placed into the lowest level of math. She’ll need to pass “two semesters of remedial math out of the way before she can start on courses relevant to her major, and two more of college-level math before she can graduate,” reports NPR.

Ashjames Pendervis works on her math homework.

Ashjame Pendarvis works on her remedial math homework at UDC Community College.

“I feel like, if math isn’t important in your career, then there is no need for it in college,” Pendarvis says. “What’s the purpose of wasting your time and your money?”

Mellow agrees. She’s involved with Carnegie’s Pathways, which offer alternatives to the traditional algebra-heavy math sequence. Some students study statistics (Statway), while others take “Quantitative Reasoning” (Quantway).

Success rates are high for Quantway and Statway students at LaGuardia and elsewhere since the program started three years ago.

Half complete remedial and college-level math in one year. “In the traditional sequence, just 15 percent do the same — and that’s in two years,” notes NPR. “We’ve tripled our success rate in half the time,” says Mellow.

Pathways students score as well or better in college-level math and statistics exams as other students, says Karen Klipple, who directs the Pathways Project.

For remedial students, algebra or statistics?

Pass rates are very low for community college students placed in remedial math, typically a review of elementary algebra. Students are more likely to pass college-level, for-credit statistics than remedial algebra, concludes a City University of New York study.

At Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), Hostos Community College (HCC), and LaGuardia Community College (LCC), most students place into remedial math.

Complete College America

Complete College America

Experimenters randomly divided students into three groups. One third took a traditional remedial algebra class, the second third took the traditional class with a two-hour weekly workshop to provide extra support and the rest took college-level, for-credit statistics plus a workshop.

In the workshops, students “reviewed and discussed what they had learned so far, including the specific topics that they were finding difficult.”

Fifty-six percent of students passed college statistics, significantly higher than the 45 percent pass rate for remedial algebra plus the workshop and 39 percent for remedial algebra without extra support.

Not surprisingly, students with higher placement scores and high school grades were the most likely to pass statistics. Early registrants also did well.

For students who don’t need college algebra for their majors, statistics may be more useful, researchers concluded.

Several community colleges around the country are experimenting with teaching statistics rather than algebra to students in non-STEM tracks, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Statistics is a “much more functional and pragmatic mathematics training” for most students, said Nikki Edgecombe is a senior research associate with the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia’s Teachers College.

CUNY will follow students in the study to see if those who took statistics do as well in the long run as classmates who took algebra.

Two CCRC studies in 2012 found many students who placed into remediation could succeed in college-level courses.

Does Khan help remedial math students?

Can Khan Academy help community college students learn algebra? With a $3 million U.S. Department of Education grant, WestEd will evaluate the effectiveness of Khan Academy’s resources for developmental math students at 36 California community colleges.

Khan Academy is a free, Internet-based learning environment that includes instructional videos, adaptive problem sets, and tools for teachers to use in providing individualized coaching and assignments to students.

. . . “Until now, there has never been a rigorous, large-scale efficacy study of Khan Academy, in community colleges or in K-12 settings,” says STEM Program Director Steve Schneider.

Algebra I instructors with no Khan experience will be randomly assigned to integrate Khan videos and problem sets into their normal classroom activities or to teach as usual. Comparing Khan-aided students to the control group, researchers will evaluate whether using Khan resources affects persistence and achievement. In addition, they’ll analyze what factors, such as teacher preparation, student characteristics and course structure, improve effectiveness.

A recent SRI study looks at how K-12 schools use Khan to teach math, notes EdSurge.

Founded by Salman Khan, who started out tutoring his cousins’ children in math, the nonprofit now offers 6,000 instructional videos and 100,000 practice problems in math, biology, physics, chemistry, economics, and more, reports Inside Philanthropy. Some 350,000 teachers also use the videos as classroom aids.

Statway offers path to college math

The traditional path to college-level math was a dead end for many students at Pierce College, reports Jason Song for the Los Angeles Times. So the community college is trying the Carnegie Foundation’s alternative path to math success, an algebra-and-statistics mix called Statway.

Catalina Daneshfar needs to pass algebra to transfer to a state university. Placed in remedial math at Pierce, she’d hired a tutor and still ended up with a D.

This year, she earned an A in the first semester of Statway. She’s on schedule to earn enough credits to transfer to a Cal State University campus next year.  “Statway saved my life,” Daneshfar said. “At the very least, it saved me from another year of school.”

Math is one of the biggest obstacles to success for California’s community college students, reports the Times.

About 73% of freshmen at community colleges need remedial math, according to state statistics, and only about a third of these students end up transferring to a four-year school or graduating with an associate’s degree, according to state figures.

The numbers are worse at Pierce, where only about 13% of students pass enough math courses to transfer, according to professors.

About half of Pierce’s Statway students earn a C or better. That lets them fulfill transfer requirements more quickly than typical remedial students.

The course covers basic and remedial algebra as well as statistics in two semesters and is designed for students who plan to major in liberal arts or non-science fields. Transferring Pierce students normally have to take three semesters of math, generally two semesters of algebra and an elective.

The Cal State system accepts Statway for transfer credit on a temporary basis, but the University of California does not. “So far, Statway has not reached the level of quality we expect,” said George Johnson, a UC Berkeley mechanical engineering professor who has reviewed courses.

Including Pierce, six California community colleges offer Statway: American River College near Sacramento, Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Diablo Valley College in Contra Costa County, Foothill College in Los Altos Hills and San Diego City College.

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?”