• Joanne Jacobs

The revolt against algebra

Algebra 2 is the gatekeeper to college, writes Pamela Burdman, of Just Equations on EdSource Today. Many students never make it past. “A quiet revolt against the dominance of algebra” could widen the pathway to college, she writes.

Thomas Navas tackles a problem in Data Science class at Francis Polytechnic High. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Los Angeles Times)

The traditional high school sequence — Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2 — often leaves students discouraged, Burdman writes. That frustration contributes to the lack of racial, ethnic and gender diversity in technical fields.

In some southern California schools, students are taking a new Data Science course that builds “critical thinking skills, data awareness and positive attitudes,” UCLA researchers believe.

New course offerings in areas like statistics, computer science and even social justice mathematics present new ways to engage students. At the same time, they can foster the quantitative literacy — or competency with numerical data — that math courses are intended to provide.

While some California districts have made Algebra 2 a graduation requirement, the Common Core State Standards include statistics as well as algebra and geometry.

The standards also stress a set of math “practices” like sense-making, abstract reasoning, modeling and precision — skills students can learn through statistics at least as well as through algebra. And they introduce the notion of teaching math via different “pathways,” affording schools the freedom to rearrange material, such as integrating algebra, geometry and statistics.

Colleges and universities are expanding their definition of math competence, she writes. Berkeley has created a data literacy class that meets the math graduation requirement.

Starting this fall, the California State University system will let students meet math/quantitative reasoning requirements by taking personal finance, game theory, statistics and computer science, reports Rosanna Xia in the Los Angeles Times. They won’t need to prove they’ve mastered intermediate algebra.

Both the UC and CSU system require students to pass Algebra 2 in high school, but new guidelines let students substitute statistics, Burdman writes.

Statistics isn’t the only challenger to algebra.

Last year, Ohio high schools began allowing advanced computer science courses to replace Algebra 2. States such as Virginia and Tennessee are incorporating courses in financial literacy for high school students.

The challenge will to open the way to college success without “closing doors” to science, technology, engineering and medical (STEM) fields, she writes.

Is it possible for students to skip intermediate algebra, yet keep STEM options open?

Statistics is more valuable to many students than the algebra-to-calculus pathway, writes Scott Guth, a mathematics professor at Mount San Antonio College, a community college. Students learn to make inferences, which strengthens “their ability to go out into the world, make observations, and use evidence to demonstrate a point.”

Now, more than ever, we need to nurture our society and electorate to be able to think critically about data, facts, and information.That’s why I’m thrilled to see community colleges begin to allow students to demonstrate quantitative literacy (the requirement for general education math) through other math classes than just algebra. 

His college has adopted Carnegie’s Statway, an alternative math pathway that’s helping students move forward to achieve their goals.

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