ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Who needs algebra? The head of California's community college system says that intermediate algebra should be dropped as a graduation requirement for non-STEM majors. That is, majors that are not in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Intermediate algebra is currently the lowest level of math needed to attain an associate's degree or to transfer to a four-year college in California. But algebra is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. Joining me now is the chancellor of the California Community Colleges, Eloy Ortiz Oakley. Welcome to the program, sir.
ELOY ORTIZ OAKLEY: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And what exactly are you proposing?
OAKLEY: Well, what we're proposing is to take an honest look at what our requirements are and why we even have them. So 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 actually are relevant to the course of study that a student is pursuing.
SIEGEL: From what I read, you're 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, and passing algebra has been one of the obstacles. Are you concerned that you might be taking the easy way out? That is, just striking a requirement to increase graduation rates rather than figuring out a better way to teach intermediate algebra.
OAKLEY: Well, I hear that a lot, and unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Somewhere along the line 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. And so what we're saying is we want to have as rigorous a course as possible to determine a student's ability to succeed, but that 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.
SIEGEL: I wanted to play you something that was said by Bob Moses, the civil rights activist who started the Algebra Project, teaching concepts of algebra to black students in the South. And he frames algebra and learning of algebra as a civil rights issue. Here he was in 2014 speaking with StateImpact Florida.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BOB MOSES: The sharecroppers we worked with were the serfs of the industrial age. So if we are turning kids out of high school who have the equivalent of an eighth grade education, then in effect we are setting them up for the serfdom of the information age.
SIEGEL: Will students who haven't had intermediate algebra be the serfs of the digital age?
OAKLEY: Well, I completely disagree with that notion, although I do agree with the notion that you just played. We want our students to be in the best position to succeed. And so we want them to have every reasoning skill, and we should expect everything of them that we expect from everyone else. The question here is whether or not this single measure is the best way to determine a student's capacity to participate in society.
SIEGEL: Rates of failure in algebra are higher for minority groups than they are for white students. Let me ask you - first, why do you think that is? And second, do you think a different curriculum would have less disparate results by ethnic group or racial group?
OAKLEY: Well, 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 those 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.
SIEGEL: Chancellor Oakley, thank you very much for talking with us about it today.
OAKLEY: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges.
(SOUNDBITE OF SMITH AND MUDD'S "SHULME")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.