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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Here We Go Again With Algebra

As a math teacher I’m often presented with what, if you think about it, is blatant rudeness:

Other:  What do you do? Me:  I’m a math teacher. Other:  Oh gawd, I hate math.

Thanks.  It’s great that I know that.  Could you imagine this conversation?

Other:  What do you do? Me:  I sell cars at Acme Ford. Other:  Oh gawd, I hate Fords.  I’m a Chevy guy.


Other:  What do you do? Me:  I’m a mechanic. Other:  Oh, blue collar.

But hey, thanks for denigrating my chosen field.

Another dismissive reaction we math teachers get is that we, because we understand math, have been given a gift that others don’t have.  We don’t have have work or study, we just “get it”, we’re the mathematical “chosen ones”, and others are entirely justified in ignoring the field because the powers that run the universe didn’t deign to bless them with such knowledge.

Math isn’t some scary boogeyman.  It’s the language of the physical sciences, it’s how we understand the world and the universe.  And it’s as freely accessible to everyone as musculature is–true, some have a head start on others, but everyone has the ability to develop muscles.  So it is with math.

That lengthy introduction brings me to a Los Angeles Times article from a week or so ago.  It seems that many minority students cannot pass Algebra 2 and hence cannot meet the admissions requirements for most California universities.  Some community colleges, like the CUNY schools mentioned on this blog last month, are at least making an effort to help their students raise their math abilities.  Not so here in California; no, if the Chancellor of California’s community colleges has his way, we’ll just remove the math requirement:

The chancellor of the California Community Colleges system says intermediate algebra should no longer be required to earn an associate degree — unless students are in the fields of science, technology, engineering or math. Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who heads the nation’s largest community college system of 114 campuses, told The Times that intermediate algebra is seen as a major barrier for students of color, preventing too many from completing degrees. About three-fourths of those who transfer to four-year universities are non-STEM majors, he said, who should be able to demonstrate quantitative reasoning skills by taking statistics or other math courses more applicable to their fields.

Oh, where to begin.

I teach statistics.  I guess it’s possible to teach a watered-down, math-free form of statistics, but such a course would be entirely useless in the real world.  You can’t really understand statistics unless you understand the math that underlies it, and that math is at about an Algebra 2 level.

But that’s not really the point, is it?  The point is that if someone is to be educated–and a university degree should be a marker of that–that university graduate should have passed a math class commonly taken in 11th grade.  If you want to get training in dance, there are schools you can attend that are focused on dance and thus don’t focus on math, and they’re allowed to have whatever entrance and exit requirements they want to have.  But if you want to get a university degree from a state university, you should have to demonstrate some minimal competencies.  The taxpayers who subsidize your education deserve at least that much.

Perhaps part of the problem is that our K-12 system doesn’t do the best job overall, and thus many employers require university degrees (for jobs that don’t need them) only to ensure the hire has some minimal competency.  Perhaps–and some fields are moving in this direction–certificates of competency in certain fields can be awarded that would eliminate the need for a sheepskin.  And community colleges can and do offer such certificates, and that’s perfectly fine.  But a university degree?  Demonstrate some minimal competencies!  When I worked as a manufacturing manager many years ago, my mantra was “Find ways to build and ship cables, not reasons why we can’t.”  Find ways to help your students meet the (not very high) standards, don’t use their skin color to make excuses for why they can’t.

There are many courses that might not be considered “applicable” in the workplace–why cut only math?  To be honest, there are entire majors that serve no valuable societal purpose, yet our schools offer them–but the chancellor wants to remove a class that actually makes people think, because “math is hard”.

President Bush used to talk about the “soft bigotry of low expectations”.  The chancellor’s comments are a shining example of what was meant.

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