No, California, Requiring Students to Take Algebra Is Not a ‘Civil Rights’ Issue. Allowing Them to Skip It Is

No California Requiring Students to Take Algebra Is Not a Civil Rights Issue Allowing Them to Skip It Is

Drop algebra.

This is the radical proposal making the rounds in California after it was floated by the chancellor of its community college system.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley cited the mathematical obstacle that was contributing to a diminished graduation rate. He argued it was a “civil rights issue” that nearly 50 percent of the community college students do not complete the math requirement, while arguing it disproportionately impacts certain Americans.

“This is a civil rights issue, but this is also something that plagues all Americans — particularly low-income Americans,” Oakley said in an NPR interview. ”If you think about all the underemployed or unemployed Americans in this country who cannot connect to a job in this economy — which is unforgiving of those students who don’t have a credential — the biggest barrier for them is this algebra requirement. It’s what has kept them from achieving a credential.”

The chancellor was asked: “But is this the easy way out? Just strike the algebra requirement to increase graduation rates instead of teaching math more effectively?”

“I hear that a lot and unfortunately nothing could be farther from the truth,” Oakley replied.

Oakley rejected that dropping the algebra requirement was lowering standards. He also proposed to replace the course with a reputedly more practical discipline, such as statistics.

“[I]f you think about it, you think about the use of statistics not only for a social science major but for every U.S. citizen,” he also said. “This is a skill that we should have all of our students have with them because this affects them in their daily life.”

NPR wasn’t bashful about stating the proposal’s implications: “Say Goodbye To X+Y: Should Community Colleges Abolish Algebra?”

The article makes more clear the kind of “civil rights issue” Oakley was alluding to:

Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads.

It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you’re not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?

That’s the argument Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, made today in an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel.

The question is begged: Shouldn’t there be hurdles to getting a high school or college degree? NPR then provided an alarming statistic:

“At American community colleges, 60 percent of those enrolled are required to take at least one math course. Most — nearly 80 percent — never complete that requirement.”

The dreadful results come in the context of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which has touted: “These new standards build on the best of high-quality math standards from states across the country.”

HuffPost gave a more sober assessment, in an article on Common Core failure updated in May 2017:

In Fall 2015 the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] tested a representative sample of high school seniors in the 2016 graduating class. After seven years of Common Core curriculum and assessment, the NAEP tests showed:

The average performance of high school seniors dropped in math and failed to improve in reading from 2013 to 2015. Performance was also down on both tests from 1992, the first year that similar tests were used.

There was a decline in the percentage of students in both public and private schools that are rated as prepared for college-level work in reading and math. In 2013, 39% of students were considered ready for college math and 38% were prepared for college-level reading. But in 2015, only 37% were prepared for college.

Then HuffPo gave the kicker:

Worse, while scores improved for students in the highest percentile group in reading, they dropped in reading and math for students in the lower percentiles.

That’s right, math scores dropped.

It is unclear how teaching impoverished, or as NPR made clear, minority students, practical courses such as statistics, rather than algebra, improves mathematical problem-solving skills. It is also uncertain how it would better equip college graduates for a workforce that has increasing demand for students from STEM backgrounds.

Pioneering work by cognitive child psychologist Jean Piaget stated that four primary stages of development should ultimately culminate in the formal operations stage. This is the stage when mathematical concepts can be applied to problem-solving without reference to concrete data. Just to be clear, we’re talking about children:

The child at this stage is capable of forming hypotheses and deducing possible consequences, allowing the child to construct his own mathematics. Furthermore, the child typically begins to develop abstract thought patterns where reasoning is executed using pure symbols without the necessity of perceptive data.

For example, the formal operational learner can solve x + 2x = 9 without having to refer to a concrete situation presented by the teacher, such as, ‘Tony ate a certain number of candies. His sister ate twice as many. Together they ate nine. How many did Tony eat?’ Reasoning skills within this stage refer to the mental process involved in the generalizing and evaluating of logical arguments (Anderson, 1990) and include clarification, inference, evaluation, and application.

It seems like a reasonable skill to expect of someone who graduates from an institution of higher learning, after he or she spends thousands of dollars to attain in-demand job skills. A journal article abstract from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience specifically addresses the role algebra plays in the development of abstract mathematical reasoning:

Algebra typically represents the students’ first encounter with abstract mathematical reasoning and it therefore causes significant difficulties for students who still reason concretely… In agreement with previous research, we can conclude that, on average, children at the age of 15–16 transition from using concrete to abstract strategies while solving the algebra problems addressed within the present study.

That’s right. It’s reasonable to expect children at the age of 15 to 16 to transition from using concrete to abstract strategies for solving algebra problems. So why not all community college students?

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