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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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:
Remedial math is only the first barrier to success for California’s community college students. Only 55 percent of community college students passed college-level math courses in fall of 2010, concludes an EdSource analysis, Passing When It Counts. Forty-one percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanics passed.
At a minimum, degree-seeking students must pass Intermediate Algebra or demonstrate proficiency on a math placement test. Until two years ago, only elementary algebra was necessary.
At a recent conference of the California Mathematics Council Community Colleges, math instructors “discussed a range of strategies, including helping students understand math concepts rather than focusing on formulas, and tying math instruction more closely to the courses of study students are pursuing,” Edsource reports.
Said Santa Rosa Junior College student Jesse Cohen, who has tutored his fellow math students, “Students need more of the why, not only the how and the what.”
Barry Russell, the community colleges’ vice chancellor of academic affairs, said instruction should stress relevance.
. . . many (welding) students don’t understand that welding has a “huge of amount of trigonometry in it.” Math classes, he said, should feature examples specifically related to welding, as well as to other fields that involve math skills, from business to medicine. “If we’re going to require math, then making the connections is more of what we should be about,” Russell said.
Success rates in community college math courses vary significantly across the state: While 69 percent of students passed college math at Merritt College in Oakland, only 34 percent succeeded at West Hills College Coalinga.
Community college instructors are trying to move students quickly through developmental math, reading and writing courses through initiatives such as the California Acceleration Project. Redesigning remedial instruction may carry over to college-level classes.
Developmental summer bridge programs helped prepare low-skilled students for college in Texas, concludes the National Center for Postsecondary Research (NCPR) Teachers College. Compared to a control group, bridge participants at seven community colleges and one open-admissions university were more likely to take and pass college-level math and writing classes in the fall semester. Participants also attempted higher-level classes in reading, writing and math.
All developmental summer bridge programs had four common features: accelerated instruction in math, reading, and/or writing; academic support; a “college knowledge” component; and the opportunity for participants to receive a $400 stipend.
Program costs averaged about $1,300 per student but varied widely.
Most summer bridge students needed more remediation in the fall: 32 percent of summer bridge students passed college-level writing during their first semester of college compared with 27 percent of control group students. Only nine percent passed college-level math, which sounds dreadful but is more than twice the four percent pass rate for the control group.
Acceleration worked at Texas A&M International University (TAMIU), said Conchita Hickey, executive director of the University College.
Instead of just lecturing and doing problems on the board, we broke students into small groups with tutors, and we had a required, structured lab. A continuing observation from faculty over the years has been that the students who pass developmental math are the ones who do their homework. And so I think the lab that accompanies our program is key—the students are there and they don’t have an excuse not to do their homework.
. . . now I don’t even want to offer beginning algebra during our regular school year. We have begun piloting intermediate algebra alongside college algebra so students take them together in learning communities.
A significant percentage of bridge students skip one or two levels in just five weeks, said Hickey.
Had these students not participated, they might have had to start in beginning algebra, and then they would have had to do intermediate algebra and only then get to college algebra. And all of those different levels cost money, and they cost time.
Nationwide, six out of ten students entering community college need at least one remedial class and only 25 percent of these students ever go on to earn a college degree or credential.
Most remedial math students never move on to college-level classes and a certificate or degree. A Carnegie Foundation webinar discussed redesigning developmental math programs at community colleges. Carnegie is working with 27 community colleges on Statway, which takes remedial math students through transferable college statistics in one year, and Quantway, an accelerated quantitative literacy pathway that stress using “mathematics and numerical reasoning to make sense of the world.” Go here for the webinar recording.
Developmental mathematics has become a “burial ground for the aspirations” of many community college students, said Uri Treisman, director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas. Only 6 to 8 percent of students who start in algebra make it to credit-bearing courses, he said, in part because they’re often taking classes that have no bearing on their goals.
High schools shouldn’t require all students to take Algebra 2, write Robert Lerman and Arnold Packer in an Education Week commentary. Most won’t need it and could use the time better in career-tech classes matched to their interests and aspirations.
On Curriculum Matters, Catherine Gewertz asks: Should All Students Take Algebra 2? Who Should Decide?
“Very few young teenagers have a clear enough idea of their pathway at that age to select math courses wisely,” she writes. They rely on adults.
Kids who don’t have the good fortune to have engaged, educated parents are at the mercy of their teachers’ and counselors’ expectations — and the quality of their particular schools’ courses and teachers — when course-signup time rolls around.
. . . Just as those who advocate raising the bar for all kids need a plan for getting even the most disadvantaged kids over that bar, those who advocate allowing students to take a less-rigorous curriculum if they choose must have a plan that ensures they will still have a multitude of good career or college choices open to them when they are finally mature enough to make those choices.
Many students slide through allegedly college-prep classes without actually mastering the reading, writing and, especially, math skills they’re supposed to have learned. Teachers are pressured to pass weak students so they can earn a diploma. The student who sits through Algebra 2 in a daze and gets pushed out with a D would be better off in a class on essential math skills needed to avoid remedial classes in community college.