Math – Algebra is Not the Only Path to Success

July 31, 2017

First, don’t get me wrong. I love math and I love algebra. As I tell students, doing algebra is doing detective work just like Sherlock Holmes. There is something we don’t know and there is an answer! It can be found out! I think it is lots of fun! Really! And I know that given the right learning environment, anyone can learn and do well at math.


But we should personalize the study of math just as we should all study, and there should be alternate math paths that relate to careers and different fields of endeavor. Different math studies would be useful in different careers and professions. One size math does not fit all!


Before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, I’ve thought this for a long time, but I’m not the only one. A quick Internet search will show that this is being seriously considered across the country and has been a discussion topic for years.


US News & World Reports published an article in 2012 entitled “Community Colleges Consider Math Options, Some schools are looking at new programs to help boost success in remedial math courses,” stating, “‘Virginia has been “overmathing” students in the humanities, liberal arts, teacher education, social sciences, and non-STEM career programs,’ says Frank Friedman, co-chair of the math redesign team and president of Piedmont Virginia Community College. ‘These students are currently required to master math skills that are more advanced than what they will ever need on their jobs and more advanced than what they will need to function successfully as an adult citizen.’”


The Seattle Times updated a 2015 article in 2016, “It’s Not You, It’s the Math: Colleges Rethink What Students Need”. They write:


“…the math problem also has caused leaders of Washington’s community colleges to ask a fundamental question: How much math, and what kind, should be required for a student to earn a college degree?


Their answer, increasingly, is that there is no one answer.


Students who are studying to become nurses, social workers, early-childhood educators or carpenters may never use intermediate algebra, much less calculus. Yet for years, community colleges have used a one-size-fits-all math approach that’s heavy on algebra and preps students for calculus.


That’s starting to change in a few pioneering schools that are overhauling what math they teach and how they teach it. Some colleges, for example, have started to offer a math sequence that focuses on statistics, and persuaded the state’s four-year colleges to accept it as a college math credit. Others are offering a learn-at-your-own-pace approach.”


The Los Angeles Times just published an article “Drop Algebra Requirement for Non-STEM Majors, California Community Colleges Chief Says”. (Click here to read it). Chancellor of the California Community Colleges Eloy Ortiz Oakley “who heads the nation’s largest community college system of 114 campuses” said, “non-STEM majors…should be able to demonstrate quantitative reasoning skills by taking statistics or other math courses more applicable to their fields.”


He asks, “And is algebra really the only means we have to determine whether a student is going to be successful in their life?” He goes on to say, “I think there’s a growing body of evidence and advocates that say ‘no’ — that there are more relevant, just as rigorous, math pathways that we feel students should have the ability to take.”


The article says, “California State University administrators have been open to exploring alternative math pathways; they are consulting with faculty to determine which disciplines need to continue requiring intermediate algebra and which could be more flexible.”


It is not possible to fairly summarize all the factors, complexities and concerns around this topic, but another LA Times article in June (“The Politics of Math: Is Algebra Necessary to Obtain a College Degree?”) has one very telling paragraph:


“‘’While the intent has been to raise achievement, the hidden underbelly of high algebra expectations has been swelling enrollment in college developmental (remedial) math,’ according to a widely cited 2015 report by Pamela Burdman published with LearningWorks and Policy Analysis for California Education. ‘The vision of millions of college students spending time and money on high school material is an unsettling one to policymakers, parents, and students alike — even more so as research has revealed that these courses have no positive effects in terms of student success.’” I added the bold.


Other states are exploring alternatives. In California :


“Some schools, like Pierce College and College of the Canyons, have experimented with programs such as the Carnegie Foundation’s Statway and those developed by the California Acceleration Project — courses in statistics and data analysis designed for majors not in math or science as a way to reach college-level quantitative reasoning without getting stuck in non-credit remedial courses or completing a traditional intermediate algebra course. Supporters of this approach have noted that students find the material more engaging — and more immediately useful in following political polls, analyzing sports data or understanding research methodology.”


I know this is a higher ed topic in Oregon and elsewhere. Most important, the overriding concern is not doing away with algebra in high school or college! It is about being clear about the proficiencies and knowledge we want students to have, and which majors and careers require the algebra pathway. The LA Times says it best when it reports that “the discussion with faculty has evolved into determining which majors need to continue requiring intermediate algebra, and which could be more flexible in considering alternatives.”


One-size math doesn’t fit all, and the evidence is now showing that there are rigorous non-algebra math programs that make more sense for some students! I’m sad that not all students get or love algebra, but I’m glad that we are taking their individual needs into account! This is good news – “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (in small ways).


And guess what. Many colleges are already there. But that’s for another day and another blog.

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