Stumped by the math problem

Math is a dream killer at Lansing Community College in Michigan. One third of students who took the math assessment test last summer didn’t qualify for the basic remedial math class, Math 050,which starts with a review of arithmetic. Only 18 percent of students who started in Math 050 had completed the math requirement seven semesters later. Read more at Community College Spotlight.

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  1. Even if it is assumed that this student population was academically diligent, this is an indictment of the k-12 math program.

  2. The real question is this: should college students be able to understand and work second year algebra problems and trigonometry? If so, then it’s not an indictment of our K-12 system. There’s no requirement that high school graduates master second year algebra and trig.

    We should not be allowing students to attend publicly funded college unless they pass a “college ready” exam. That will, alas, prevent huge swathes of the population from attending college.

  3. We’re running right off a cliff and we’ll hang in the air for a bit, like Wylie Coyote, then we’ll plunge uncontrollably.

    The company I work for hires engineers who have specialized knowledge of commercial electrical and HVAC systems (and can do a variety of complicated mathematical analyses). Put another way, they are engineers who have specialized in a fairly narrow field. Every time we’ve tried to hire it has taken a long time to find a qualified applicant.

    There are six guys in that area right now and the only one of them that is younger than fifty years old is foreign-born. None of them went through US high schools later than the 1970s. This is just one data point, but I’ll bet there are a lot more like it out there.

    At some point, when you can’t hire ANYONE that’s qualified, decline is inevitable.

  4. The problem originates in tax subsidization of K-PhD schooling. Lack of mathematical fluency would present no problems in an unsubsidized market in education services. Safeway will sell a pot roast to an incompetent cook. So long as thje student does not disrupt class or bill taxpayers, why not let illiterates sit through a graduate Literature class?

  5. Since the most basic remedial class is arithmetic and pre-algebra, failing to qualify for it IS an indictment of k-12 education. Such things should be mastered before entering HS, at the latest. I agree that any kind of public funding, either for the institution or the individual, should be limited to the college-ready, as demonstrated by SAT, SAT II, ACT or AP/IB scores.

  6. >There’s no requirement that high school graduates
    >master second year algebra and trig.

    Do you know how many jobs this will leave them unqualified for? They can’t go into engineering; into any hard science; into any top-level business major (which require statistics that require algebra); into computer science; into medicine; or into Architecture. About all they’re qualified for in college is liberal arts and humanities.

    Look at it this way: our technological culture can only be maintained if a certain percentage of the population is able to understand its mathematical underpinnings. You can’t deal with the quadrature amplitude modulation used by cell phones if you can’t do gnarly math. You can’t design a wind turbine, solar installation or efficient air conditioning unit if you don’t have lots of math. You can’t design computer networking equipment without lots of math. Hell, you can’t really design a food processor without math. Technology, by and large, is all math.

    Now, I don’t know what that percentage is. Maybe only 10% of your population needs to understand it deeply, maybe it’s 40%, I don’t know. I do know that number isn’t zero.

    If you make math essentially optional in high school, then essentially zero kids will bother. It’s hard and can be frustrating and, if the adults have decided it’s optional, then the kids will decide it probably isn’t important anyway. Math is one of the important underpinnings of our world. It simply isn’t optional.

  7. Ahhh, the good old days when the SAT and your high school transcripts meant something in college applications. Now its essays and extra-curricular activities.

  8. Since the most basic remedial class is arithmetic and pre-algebra, failing to qualify for it IS an indictment of k-12 education.

    It’s really not. You need three years of math to graduate from high school. There’s nothing that says that can’t be pre-algebra, algebra, and some sort of business math. And there are plenty of kids who pass both algebra and pre-algebra at the margin who are just very, very shaky.

    Of course, what’s happening is that the kids are taking algebra three times, geometry twice, and really don’t have much mastery of either–but they are passed anyway. On that, the school system can be indicted. For passing them in classes despite a failure to perform. But for graduating them? They passed the CAHSEE, which requires algebra, a bit of geometry, and arithmetic.

    Do you know how many jobs this will leave them unqualified for?

    People who can’t master algebra are not on track for any engineering jobs. They don’t have the cognitive ability for it (at least, as we currently teach engineering). People who have lower cognitive abilities aren’t qualified for many, many jobs. This shouldn’t come as a shock to you.

    The kids coming in at remedial level are, for the most part, kids who don’t have the cognitive ability to master higher level math. The real issue is whether or not they should have been allowed to enter college, and why they were told they passed algebra when they didn’t.

  9. >The kids coming in at remedial level are, for the most part, kids
    >who don’t have the cognitive ability to master higher level math.

    This is either false or there has been a horrible genetic decline in the human race (mostly just in the US) over the last few decades. Algebra has always been hard and students have always moaned about it, but a hell of a lot more of them learned it forty years ago than learn it now.

    Look at the results of this test, given to 202 students at University of Washington enrolled in a class on atmospheric sciences (they averaged 58% on this very simple test):

    http://www.atmos.washington.edu/%7Ecliff/101Math2009A1.pdf

    This isn’t the result of students who have “lower cognitive abilities”. This is a criminal act by our society that wastes their lives by failing to educate them.

  10. The only thing that stumps me is why folks are stumped by the fact the college students, community college or otherwise, can’t do math, even basic arithmetic. We have known this for some time and have done nothing about the problem. Moreover, they have been “taught” by teachers, especially at the K-8 level, who have gone through ed school, most of whom cannot do math, even basic arithmetic.

    We reap what we sow.

  11. >The kids coming in at remedial level are, for the most part, kids
    >who don’t have the cognitive ability to master higher level math.

    This is either false or there has been a horrible genetic decline in the human race (mostly just in the US) over the last few decades.

    The changes to US immigration law in 1965, plus the abdication of border enforcement and the 1986 amnesty, have shifted the US population towards persons of Third World background.

  12. j.d.salinger says:

    It’s really not. You need three years of math to graduate from high school. There’s nothing that says that can’t be pre-algebra, algebra, and some sort of business math. And there are plenty of kids who pass both algebra and pre-algebra at the margin who are just very, very shaky.

    Not being able to do arithmetic is OK? As Rob says there are a lot more kids in the “very very shaky” category than there used to be. But it isn’t an indictment of K-12, it’s an indictment of weak college entrance requirements. Right.

  13. > shifted the US population towards persons of Third World background

    Yes. I live in Texas and see this every day. However, that example from University of Washington probably includes a relatively smaller number of these individuals. Also, they may be coming across the border uneducated, but it’s the education system that just passed them along, never requiring actual achievement from them.

  14. Cal: High schools are not demanding real college prep work from kids who aspire to college, even CC, and both CCs and universities are enabling this by offering remedial courses. There used to be – and should be – differences between the minimum requirements for a HS degree and the requirements for college entrance. Confusion of these two has led to the current situation; pretending that “all” should go to college and colleges admitting kids who don’t belong there.

    It used to be that those kids needing remediation of HS-level material took night HS classes until they could EARN a diploma. By passing kids along regardless of what they might or might not have learned, the k-12 system has failed millions of kids. Worse yet, kids and parents are being seriously deceived about the grade-level performance/college readiness issue.

  15. >This is either false or there has been a horrible genetic decline in the human >race (mostly just in the US) over the last few decades

    An anti-intellectual culture + unsafe chemicals everywhere in our food, water, and air messing with our brain chemistry + a K-12 education system where feelings are more important than learning difficult subjects = the U.S. in decline

    All high school graduates in the U.S. should have four years of Math (at least Algebra, Geometry, and then either PreCalculus or Statistics), four years of Science (introductory Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Astronomy), four years of Social Studies (U.S. History, World History, U.S. Government, Economics), and four years of English Language Arts. Period. If they can’t do it, then they don’t get a high school diploma. To do otherwise makes a high school diploma little more than a certificate of attendance…

  16. tim-10-ber says:

    Couple of things — watch TN as the only post secondary schools to teach remedial classes beginning for of 2011 will be community colleges. My hope is they will stop offering them as their funding is to be tied to completion of the community college program.

    Second…if high school require three years of high school math isn’t that algebra 1, geometry and algebra II? Now in TN they are requiring 4 years of high school math for ALL students whether they are college material or not.

    Third — read Charles Murray’s book REAL EDUCATION. If what he says is true educators need to come back to reality — 2/3rd of the kids coming out of high school need to go to work or voc-tech. They do NOT need four years of math, SLAs, etc . They need a strong voc-tech program that appears to be virtually non-existent…

    We need educators and guidance counselors to be brutally honest with kids all throughout their years in school, hold them accountable for learning and then guide them to the appropriate track best suited to their needs in high school…sure make it flexible enough for kids that change their mind and want to go to college can…but stop the foolishness of guiding all kids to college…please!

    Just my two cents worth…

  17. It’s not “math” that’s killing the dream….

  18. Fred the fourth says:

    They “didn’t QUALIFY for the basic remedial math class”. Not “they could not test out of it”.
    Hell’s bells. Adults with this level of math “competence” are not just at risk for failing in college. They also will not be able to 1) understand what will happen if they make a habit of paying the minimum on their credit card balance; 2) understand a home- or car-loan offer; 3) vote rationally regarding tax issues; 4) tell if their union pension plan is smoke-and-mirrors; 5) set their tax withholding correctly; 6) comparison shop by price in a grocery … and the list of everyday activities goes on and on.

  19. Um, in general, it isn’t the college ready kids with engineering aspirations who end up in the remedial track at the local community college. Look at the sample. These are the kids who have spent their school careers not doing most of their homework, disrupting class, zoning out, and in general not putting in a lot of effort either because the cognitive ability or the “soft skills” are just not there.

    Look, all the IEPs I just read to kick off the school year — for kids with disabilities who are functioning on a 4th grade reading and math level — have a “goal” of a four year college after graduation. And they’ll go to the local cc, too — and drop out within a semester or two when they can’t function without a paraprofessional in the room reminding them to write something on the paper every 7 minutes.

    And the group that comes in right after them, my AP seniors (you know, the only type of kid Europe even considers college prep) is full of students who will score 5’s on Calc B&C exam in May. Nobody talks about them. They’re inconvenient for teacher bashing, aren’t they? BTW, they had all the same teachers up until 8th grade.

  20. Algebra has always been hard and students have always moaned about it, but a hell of a lot more of them learned it forty years ago than learn it now.

    Not true.

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2004-08-11-algebra_x.htm

    Quote:
    Federal statistics show that the percentage of 13-year-olds taking algebra or pre-algebra has risen sharply, from 35% in 1986 to 56% in 1999. The percentage of high school graduates who have taken Algebra II also has risen, from 35.6% in 1982 to 64.3% in 2000. In many districts, it tops 90%.

    Of course, taking Algebra II and understanding it are two different things. But if only 35% of high school kids had even taken algebra II in 1986, then even fewer were understanding it. It was quite normal to take algebra as a junior in high school 40 years ago. So no, it’s simply untrue that more kids–either as a percentage or an absolute number–were taking and understanding algebra 40 years ago.

    We haven’t changed all that much cognitively; immigration has extended the highs and the lows. But the big difference between then and now is that we pretend to teach kids algebra, whereas before, we didn’t let them take it.

    High schools are not demanding real college prep work from kids who aspire to college, even CC, and both CCs and universities are enabling this by offering remedial courses.

    This is, again, untrue–profoundly and ignorantly so. I have been coaching high school students at every part of the ability spectrum for the past seven years. The top 10-15% of high school students are taking a far more demanding curriculum to get into selective (top 100) colleges than they had to just 15 years ago.

    Selective colleges only offer remedial courses so they can commit affirmative action. The only real problem with remedial courses is at open access universities, and that’s not because the colleges have lowered their standards, but because they have been forced to stop having standards because it is politically unacceptable to face the reality of who is prepared for college.

  21. >These are the kids who have spent their school careers not doing most of their homework, disrupting class, zoning out>, and in general not putting in a lot of effort either because the cognitive ability or the “soft skills” are just not there.

    True, and I agree with you 100%, but another aspect of the problem is that there is a much larger percentage of K-12 students these days that fall into this category above… There will always be people who throw away their lives at a young age, but it should be more like 5% of the population, instead of 50%…

  22. Well, just look at the advertising for colleges. Are they touting their superior academic programs and their ability to ‘build’ successful citizens? No. They focus on the sense of community, that college is a rite of passage for all young adults, and that a simple piece of paper will give them a well-paying career.
    Add to that the ridiculous belief that all can earn a college degree, which is likely an unexpected result of Cold War era rivalry with the USSR, and is it any wonder that so many unqualified individuals attend college?

  23. Cal: I still disagree; high schools are NOT demanding real college-prep work for kids aspiring to college. The kids at the top of the ability/motivation pyramid – which in some schools may be a majority and in some schools almost nonexistent – have been and still are doing far more than the requirements. However, schools are not even demanding grade-level work of most kids, at all levels. That’s why we have kids who can’t add and subtract without a calculator taking “algebra I” in eighth grade and kids reading at a fifth-grade level taking AP English. You are, however, right about the politics of the “college for all”, “all can be proficient” storyline; if academic achievement was distributed evenly across all racial/ethnic groups, this storyline and the hand-wringing about the achievment gap would disappear. This isn’t Lake Woebegon and half of all the kids are below average.

  24. We have started to think of college prep for all in the same way as we think of immunizations for all: not everyone will actually attend/graduate from college just as not everyone will be at risk if they’re not immunized against measles. But since we are reluctant to say that any individual child “won’t need” college prep, we just deliver it to everyone, or claim to. The problem is that, unlike immunizations, there is a terrific opportunity cost when we shove every child towards college. The cost is partly borne by the students who would benefit more from a (rigorous) pre-vocational curriculum, partly by employers who can’t find employees who can read, write, and do math effectively, and partly by all of us.

  25. How many of the kids who wind up remedial math do so not because they’re dumb but because they’ve been taught with bad curricula like the infamous Every Day Mathematics? If every school in the U.S. adopted a strong elementary math program like Singapore Primary Mathematics, I believe we’d see a marked decline in the number of kids needing remediation.

  26. The politicians who pushed for “Everyday Mathematics” across the country should be arrested and tried for sedition. Once convicted, their sentence should keep in mind all the millions of Americans’ lives they’ve ruined forever…

    http://redtape.msnbc.com/2009/12/when-i-published-gotcha-capitalism-two-years-ago-i-was-in-for-a-big-surprise-as-i-talked-about-systemic-hidden-fee-fraud-al.html