How redesigning math education might produce more college grads

January 15, 2014 | Written by: Pamela Burdman

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released a report showing the skill levels of the U.S. labor force fall far behind those of populations in Japan, Korea, and northern Europe. Most dramatic are the rankings in math literacy, where almost a third of Americans scored in the lowest two levels of the survey. This lack of math skills has enormous implications for the U.S. work force in the future, not to mention the present.

One way to reverse the low levels of math literacy is to change math education itself. That’s the conclusion reached in Changing Equations, a report I wrote about promising experiments to align college math requirements with the actual demands of students’ academic programs and future careers. The current emphasis on several years of algebra to prepare students for calculus doesn’t jibe with the reality that fewer than a third of Americans with a four-year college degree ever use intermediate algebra or beyond.

In fact, students who aren’t pursuing careers in science, technology engineering, or math (STEM) often suffer because of insufficient exposure to statistics and quantitative reasoning – the very sort of skills that the OECD study found lacking in the U.S. workforce. This predicament is leading some in academia to call intermediate algebra the “new Latin.”

Though the course has long been assumed to be a predictor of college success, a closer look reveals that assumption to be based on a correlation. Intermediate algebra is linked with college and career success simply because colleges have long made it an entrance requirement. There is no empirical evidence directly linking intermediate algebra to career success – outside of science and technology fields that are rooted in calculus (to which intermediate algebra is a stepping stone).

Even leading mathematicians are questioning the sacred role of intermediate algebra, concerned that it actually is preventing students from developing the math literacy they need and crowding statistics and quantitative reasoning out of the curriculum. “Millions of people are taking stuff that I think, as a mathematician, is a waste of time,” said mathematician Uri Treisman, who runs the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

The good news is that experiments at U.S. community colleges to prioritize statistics and quantitative reasoning and de-emphasize advanced algebra for non-STEM students are yielding impressive results, with students completing college-level math courses at double to triple the rates of the standard curriculum – in half the time. That is, students taking these remedial courses are performing far better in college-level classes than students taking intermediate algebra.

LearningWorks, an education nonprofit focused on community college student success, commissioned the report to highlight the potential that such innovations could improve graduation rates at community colleges.

The experiments are taking place in about a quarter of California’s community colleges as well as in at least eleven other states, and being led by prestigious education research centers including the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the UT-Austin’s Dana Center as well as start-up groups such as the California Acceleration Project.

The experiments are being conducted in response to growing awareness that remedial math requirements may be the single greatest barrier to community college students completing degrees and credentials. The majority of students entering community college are required to take one or more remedial math courses, including intermediate algebra. Only 20 percent of those students ultimately complete that course sequence and pass a college-level math course that will allow them to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year university. The rest drop out.

“You look at those numbers and you think, ‘We have to be able to do better than this,” said Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation. “It’s hard to believe that a system writing off three out of four kids is the best we can do.”

Remedial math requirements, therefore, may be the single highest hurdle standing between entering community college students and a college degree. Amid efforts by states and college systems to improve graduation rates, especially at community colleges, these requirements are coming in for extra scrutiny.

The new math sequences are still being tested in community colleges, but if their success continues, their adoption could grow exponentially. For now, most K-12 school systems as well as four-year universities still assume a need for two years of algebra, but positive results from the experiments could be compelling cause to re-think math instruction not just at community colleges, but throughout the education system.

The OECD report is a good reminder of the need to double down on math, but we won’t succeed unless schools are teaching the math skills students will need most in their lives and careers.

About the Author:

Pamela Burdman is an education policy analyst and former program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.