Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads.
It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you're not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?
That's the argument Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, made today in an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel.
At American community colleges, 60 percent of those enrolled are required to take at least one math course. Most — nearly 80 percent — never complete that requirement.
Oakley is among a growing number of educators who view intermediate algebra as an obstacle to students obtaining their credentials — particularly in fields that require no higher level math skills.
Their thinking has led to initiatives like Community College Pathways, which strays away from abstract algebra to engage students in real-world math applications.
What follows is an edited version of Siegel's Q&A with Oakley.
What are you proposing?
What we're proposing is to take an honest look at what our requirements are and why we even have them. So, for example, we have a number of courses of study and majors that do not require algebra. We want to take a look at other math pathways, look at the research that's been done across the country and consider math pathways that are actually relevant to the coursework that the student is pursuing.
You are facing pressure to increase graduation rates — only 48 percent graduate from California community colleges with an associate's degree or transfer to a four-year institution within six years. As we've said, passing college algebra is a major barrier to graduation. But is this the easy way out? Just strike the algebra requirement to increase graduation rates instead of teaching math more effectively?
I hear that a lot and unfortunately nothing could be farther from the truth. Somewhere along the lines, since the 1950s, we decided that the only measure of a student's ability to reason or to do some sort of quantitative measure is algebra. What we're saying is we want as rigorous a course as possible to determine a student's ability to succeed, but it should be relevant to their course of study. There are other math courses that we could introduce that tell us a lot more about our students.
Do you buy the argument that there are just some forms of reasoning — whether it's graphing functions or solving quadratic equations that involve a mental discipline — that may never be actually used literally on the job, but may improve the way young people think?
There's an argument to be made that much of what we ask students to learn prepares them to be just better human beings, allows them to have reasoning skills. But again, the question becomes: What data do we have that suggests algebra is that course? Are there other ways that we can introduce reasoning skills that more directly relate to what a student's experience in life is and really helps them in their program of study or career of choice?
A lot of students in California community colleges are hoping to prepare for a four-year college. What are you hearing from the four-year institutions? Are they at ease with you dropping the requirement? Or would they then make the students take the same algebra course they're not taking at community college?
This question is being raised at all levels of higher education — the university level as well as the community college level. There's a great body of research that's informing this discussion, much of it coming from some of our top universities, like the Dana Center at the University of Texas, or the Carnegie Foundation. So there's a lot of research behind this and I think more and more of our public and private university partners are delving into this question of what is the right level of math depending on which major a student is pursuing.
And there are people writing about concepts of numeracy that may be different from what people have been teaching all this time. Do you have in mind a curriculum that would be more useful than intermediate algebra?
We are piloting different math pathways within our community colleges. We're working with our university partners at CSU and the UC, trying to ensure that we can align these courses to best prepare our students to succeed in majors. And if you think about it, you think about the use of statistics not only for a social science major but for every U.S. citizen. This is a skill that we should have all of our students have with them because this affects them in their daily life.
Are you at all disappointed that the high schools who are sending students to California's community colleges are not already teaching their students these algebra skills before they graduate?
Certainly, these questions come up in K-12 education, but if we consider who really drives K-12 education — that is our four-year university system. By creating requirements, we ensure that K-12 has to align with those requirements. So as long as algebra is the defining math course, K-12 will have to teach it.
Bob Moses , the civil rights activist, started the Algebra Project, teaching concepts of algebra to black students in the South. He saw the teaching of math as a continuation of the civil rights struggle.
Rates of failure in algebra are higher for minority groups than they are for white students. Why do you think that is? Do you think a different curriculum would have less disparate results by ethnic or racial group?
First of all, we've seen in the data from many of the pilots across the country that are using alternative math pathways — that are just as rigorous as an algebra course — we've seen much greater success for students because many of these students can relate to these different kinds of math depending on which program of study they're in. They can see how it works in their daily life and how it's going to work in their career.
The second thing I'd say is yes, this is a civil rights issue, but this is also something that plagues all Americans — particularly low-income Americans. If you think about all the underemployed or unemployed Americans in this country who cannot connect to a job in this economy — which is unforgiving of those students who don't have a credential — the biggest barrier for them is this algebra requirement. It's what has kept them from achieving a credential.
Do you risk a negative form of tracking? Depriving a student of the possibility of saying in community college: "Wow, that quadratic equation is the most interesting thing I've ever seen. I think I'm going to do more stuff like this."
We're certainly not saying that we're going to commit students to lower levels of math or different kinds of math. What we're saying is we want more students to have math skills that allow them to keep moving forward. We want to build bridges between the kinds of math pathways we're talking about that will allow them to continue into STEM majors. We don't want to limit students.
The last thing I'd say is that we are already tracking students. We are already relegating students to a life of below livable wage standards. So we've already done so, whether intentionally or unintentionally.