After 12th grade, it’s back to middle school

“A large fraction of students are leaving the 12th grade with a high-school diploma, and they’re about to begin a course of studies at the 8th grade level,” says Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, of community college students.

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  1. Can’t follow the text links in the brief to read more about this story.

    And thanks, by the way, for your excellent work!

  2. Here is the crux of the story from the article:

    A large fraction of students are leaving the 12th grade
    with a high-school diploma, and they’re about to begin
    a course of studies at the 8th grade level,” said Marc
    Tucker, president of the NCEE.

    NCEE randomly selected one community college in each
    of seven states, then examined eight of the most popular
    programs–accounting, automotive technology, biotech/
    electrical technology, business, criminal justice,
    early childhood education, information technology/
    computer programming, nursing, and the general
    education track.

    NCEE researchers examined the programs’ textbooks, assignments and exams to see what math and English
    skills truly were necessary to succeed.

    While the researchers found that “the reading and writing currently required of students in initial credit-bearing courses in community colleges is not very complex or cognitively demanding,” the report’s math findings are
    even more striking. The report also states that
    middle school math–”arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations”–were more
    central to the community college math courses
    than the Algebra II most high schools emphasize
    in college readiness programs. “What really is
    needed in our community colleges and really for
    the majority of Americans in the work that they do
    is middle school math,” Tucker said.

    Raising admission standards would exclude most
    would-be community college students. And for what purpose? Only a few “will ever need to use
    advanced math skills in college or the workplace,” according to NCEE, which equates requiring
    advanced algebra to requiring Latin. ”It looks like
    we’re denying high school graduates the opportunity
    to take credit-bearing courses because they can’t
    master math that they don’t need, and that seems
    very unfair,” Tucker said.

    Mr. Tucker is dead wrong in his assessment. When
    high school graduates applying for jobs in washington
    state for a manufacturing company which gives an 18
    question, 30 minute exam (allowing the use of calculators)
    and 9 of every 10 applicants fail due to the fact they
    don’t understand math at the 5th to 8th grade level,
    why should we expect less from college students (even
    community college students)?

    I thought that college was SUPPOSED to be about higher
    education, but this just lends more credence to the fact
    that a college degree is the new high school diploma.


    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Bill, it sounds to me like Tucker is agreeing with you. He is saying that schools shouldn’t try to force people into advanced algebra. Rather, they should make sure that students do understand ”arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations.”

      He is implying that schools pass people along to courses that are labelled advanced math even though the students haven’t mastered basic math.

      Education realist has a relevant conversation with another math teacher:

      • Roger,

        IMO, math teaches problem solving, critical thinking
        and analysis skills, which are sorely lacking in many
        high school graduates and college graduates these

        The concepts of middle school math might cut in a
        vocational track program, but if you look at most
        of the degree programs, I’d shudder to think that
        students in a nursing track wouldn’t be required
        to master at least algebra, and on the Nursing
        board exams, you’ll be unable to pass unless
        you have a solid knowledge of algebra.

        If we want to stop this problem, start getting
        elementary teachers with better math skills
        (typically, these individuals have very weak
        math skills as a general rule), and with proper
        instruction, kids will be able to have access to
        the careers they might want to pursue, rather
        than being shut out from the beginning.

        If middle school math is all that’s required for
        most jobs today, which might be true, why
        bother having kids finish high school at all 🙂

  3. I agree with you about ES teachers’ knowledge of and interest in math; I’ve heard far too many say that they went into ES teaching because they “liked kids and didn’t have to take any math.” Requiring SAT/ACT or SAT II or AP math scores that demonstrate sufficient math knowledge for admission would certainly help that issue.

    ES math curricula are also part of the problem; most are seriously flawed, in that mastery is not necessary before advancement to a new topic or a new grade. If we were serious about this, Singapore Math (or perhaps Saxon) is the way to go. Ed schools should specifically teach students how to teach this kind of math.

    Also, groupwork and discovery learning are not only flawed, but enormously inefficient (not that the ed world seems to be aware of that concept). Kids need explicit instruction and sufficient practice to cement learning. Some kids will need lots more practice than others, of course.

    Maybe, if those changes were made, kids would get a decent foundation in ES, so as to be ready for MS and HS coursework.


  4. It’s pretty simple, I think: most young people don’t know any math, so they can’t imagine how it would be used in everyday situations.

    The fact is that basic high school math pops up all the time in the regular working world: but only for people who can deal with basic high school math. For everyone else, math is indeed useless.

    If I were a math teacher, I think I would make it my mission to collect up enough examples to have one on tap for every day of the school year.

    • Rob: If you’re going to take responsibility for planning a retirement, you need some math. And then, how much of the mortgage mess was caused by people not being able to understand the mortgage they were getting? In 2006 when my wife and went to buy a house, we read some of the contracts being offered on ARM’s –
      “After the introductory period, your interest rate will reset to LIBOR + 5% as stated in the Wall Street Journal on the first day of every quarter…” Better not be caught borrowing 40% on the teaser rate, yet people were…not realizing what their payments would be when the rate reset after the teaser.

      When I was teaching math, I had half my credits for a computational finance degree and an MBA under my belt. My first year, I had a student say they just needed enough math to manage their money and what was the point of algebra? So I tried to make it real – with money. From the newspaper, WSJ, magazines, what have you. It failed to inspire – those who were paying attention before were still paying attention; those who weren’t, weren’t. Some had checked out long before they got to high school.

      • I agree that (too many) students have checked out of math long before HS. As I said above, the problems starts in ES. I remember ES math assignments about adjusting recipes (to feed more/fewer people), finding out how much paint was needed to paint a room/house, how much lumber/paint/shingles were necessary to build a doghouse of a specific size and pattern, how to calculate sales tax, balance one’s checkbook, calculate mortgage rates/amounts, calculate the amount of seed and fertilizer for lawns and gardens, etc.This was all done in the days decades prior to calculators; it was all done longhand, in the pencil and paper era.

        Kids who don’t master the fundamentals in ES will struggle thereafter, particularly in the current scenario that pushes “all” kids into algebra (and subsequent) classes for which they lack the necessary background and in which they cannot possibly learn the material. Just look at the results of the Montgomery County, MD countywide test results in HS math (and other subjects).

  5. This isn’t really news. When I was in high school, everyone knew that taking “college” classes at the local community college meant that you were wimping out of the harder high school classes.

    The thing is that traditionally, community college was not for the most academically oriented kids. If you’re ready to take college-level classes when you graduate, you’re not going to CC, you’re going to a 4 year institution. CC is designed for the kids who need ‘just enough school’ to get into the job they want.

    For instance, the college where I live now offers a few gen ed courses and lots, and lots, and lots of welding. These courses aren’t designed for kids who love school. They’re designed for kids who put in their time, gamely suffered through school, and want a job where they won’t be stuck at a desk all day.

    So yes, the math and reading at the CC is at a pretty basic level– because those aren’t the skills these colleges aim to teach.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Yeez, our community colleges in Jersey are very different from yours. Ours mostly train in technical skills: radiography, nursing, electrical engineering technician, chemical technician, dental hygienist. Ours don’t even offer welding or the building trades; those are offered at a separate county trade school.

      • Stacy,

        Just curious, what are the math and science
        requirements for admission to those programs,
        and what are the requirements once admitted?

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Bill, the requirements vary by program. Like all CC’s, they enroll pretty much anyone with a pulse, but acceptance to one of the tech programs requires a minimum score on the SAT or Accuplacer exam, higher level math and science courses on their high school transcript, and/or passing remedial classes with a B or better. Some of the medical tech degrees require a quite high level of math and science. They get more applicants then they have available space because individuals with those tech degrees are reasonably well paid and in demand in Jersey. Pharmaceutical companies are a major employer in my region (Morris/Somerset county).