I thought today I may return to my critique of higher education, prompted by a great email conversation I had with a friend and fellow blogger. While chatting about various issues of feminism, I happened to inadvertently stumble onto a topic we happily disagreed on: the math requirement for undergraduate freshman in college.
Yikes! Stick with me! I know I said the “math” word, but bear with me and try not to focus too hard on taking notes. This will NOT be on the test.
What happened in our conversation is that I brought up how much I disagree with what I believe is the archaic and elitism-steeped, algebra-enforced gateway to a college degree. Specifically, I criticized that my university required students of accounting to complete math courses up to pre-calculus- a requirement that I think is overt, unnecessary, and undermining to students. My friend disagreed and said she would prefer hiring an accountant that had demonstrated the ability to think on a level that could defeat a pre-calculus class.
I couldn’t agree more with her. About the necessary ability to think, that is. What is disagree with is that math classes, especially high level abstract math, measures anything more than a student’s amount of free time (no family or job!), income, ability to take tests, and short term memory.
In short, I think the current math requirement (from algebra to calculus) is invalid; it just doesn’t measure what we think it does about students. I think that it instead measures something quite expected about universities: elitism.
Wake up! The next parts will be on the exam!
Ok, I lied. Now, what was that about elitism and invalidity? Here’s some food for thought:
In both these New York Times articles: Why Americans Stink at Math and Is Algebra Necessary?, both an emeritus political science professor of New York University and Elizabeth Green, the chief executive of a journalism site for public educational change called Chalkbeat, weigh in on the nature of the math requirement as well as the way America teaches math itself. It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the U.S. currently sucks at teaching math to students. I mean, how did you do in your public school math lessons? Chances are, you were about on par with me: not great. But we excelled in other subjects, right? Yep, there’s the issue.
First off, the U.S. teaches math in a way that doesn’t click with American students. While there are great examples of how successful math can and is taught elsewhere, such as Japan, the U.S. continues to burden its students with an ineffective system of empty, inapplicable memorization and silent note taking. U.S. public schools seem to be more concerned with how learning should appear, rather than how learning is best accomplished. In Japan for example, maths tend to be group focused; where students can bounce ideas off each other and build an internal, personal understanding of why concepts work (why is that the right answer?) and why some do not. Of course, this environment may not look American enough to fulfil U.S. educational ideals. I mean, children should still be seen and not heard, right? Groups? Bah!
So then, with an ineffective system of teaching math in public school, the vast majority of students begin a college career without the ability to do math as expected in yet another ritualistic, sit-and-shut-up, note-taking fashion.
And, just in case you may believe that the inability to do school-style math is just a tendency for lazy, self-interested, independence-loving Americans, check this out:
The unschooled may have been more capable of complex math than people who were specifically taught it, but in the context of school, they were stymied by math they already knew. Studies of children in Brazil, who helped support their families by roaming the streets selling roasted peanuts and coconuts, showed that the children routinely solved complex problems in their heads to calculate a bill or make change. When cognitive scientists presented the children with the very same problem, however, this time with pen and paper, they stumbled. A 12-year-old boy who accurately computed the price of four coconuts at 35 cruzeiros each was later given the problem on paper. Incorrectly using the multiplication method he was taught in school, he came up with the wrong answer. (From Why Do Americans Stink at Math)
So, when faced with an American, public education-style math method, this perfectly competent, unschooled boy failed. This is what I mean by invalid- the math requirement is likely not measuring a real ability to reason or think. This may be an epistemological kind of problem.
In Is Algebra Necessary?, it is suggested that the math requirement fulfils more of the elitist needs of a university than to serve to educate the public, which is becoming more and more necessary for a decent living and continued upward mobility in the U.S. While no one is saying that math should be given up altogether (not even me!), the requirement has served to be a detriment more often than it may be proving a set of skills or academic readiness. Take this for example:
Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white. In New Mexico, 43 percent of white students fell below “proficient,” along with 39 percent in Tennessee. Even well-endowed schools have otherwise talented students who are impeded by algebra, to say nothing of calculus and trigonometry.
California’s two university systems, for instance, consider applications only from students who have taken three years of mathematics and in that way exclude many applicants who might excel in fields like art or history. Community college students face an equally prohibitive mathematics wall. A study of two-year schools found that fewer than a quarter of their entrants passed the algebra classes they were required to take.
“There are students taking these courses three, four, five times,” says Barbara Bonham of Appalachian State University. While some ultimately pass, she adds, “many drop out.” (From Is Algebra Necessary?)
So, while the “onerous” math requirement is busy weeding out everyone- including minorities and other marginalized populations- from gaining a foothold on the
fleeting American Dream, the associated cost is staggering. Consider that in order to take these required math courses, many students must take pre-requisite after pre-requisite, sometimes 2-5 extra classes, all at full cost (including the time invested) with textbooks. Not only can this add an extra year or more to a student’s college career and student loan expenses, but it is well known statistically that the longer a student spends in college, the less likely that they will ever finish their degree- and this goes double for non-traditional students with jobs and families (estimated to make up at least half or more of the current student population today).
By now you are probably thinking, “Yeah but, at least STEM careers need to have that heavy math requirement! I mean, who will build our rockets, bridges, and cell phone components?” Well…
Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job. John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied math education, has found that “mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.” Even in jobs that rely on so-called STEM credentials — science, technology, engineering, math — considerable training occurs after hiring, including the kinds of computations that will be required. Toyota, for example, recently chose to locate a plant in a remote Mississippi county, even though its schools are far from stellar. It works with a nearby community college, which has tailored classes in “machine tool mathematics.” (From Is Algebra Necessary?)
…so yeah, I’m not sure that argument holds water even for the great, lofty STEM degrees. What about those STEM careers, anyway?
A skeptic might argue that, even if our current mathematics education discourages large numbers of students, math itself isn’t to blame. Isn’t this discipline a critical part of education, providing quantitative tools and honing conceptual abilities that are indispensable — especially in our high tech age? In fact, we hear it argued that we have a shortage of graduates with STEM credentials.
Of course, people should learn basic numerical skills: decimals, ratios and estimating, sharpened by a good grounding in arithmetic. But a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above. And if there is a shortage of STEM graduates, an equally crucial issue is how many available positions there are for men and women with these skills. A January 2012 analysis from the Georgetown center found 7.5 percent unemployment for engineering graduates and 8.2 percent among computer scientists. (From Is Algebra Necessary?)
So there’s that bit of sha-bang. Ok, ok. So, if I’m not arguing to simply wipe the math requirement or public math off of the American educational map, what can be done to make this all more realistic, equitable, and open?
Very recently, NPR released this article about a new way of teaching math in college: Who Needs Algebra? New Approach To College Math Helps More Pass, focusing on math that is less abstract and more applicable to students. And, its working.
…the Quantway course is organized around concepts important for immediately useful topics: personal finance, health and civics.
This may sound like the old debate over replacing “pure math” with “applied math” or “business math.” But Karon Klipple, who directs the Pathways project, says what’s even more important to this new approach is changing how teachers teach, and how students think about math — and even how they feel about it.
Pathways tells instructors to emphasize “productive persistence” — using good study strategies, and trying hard. They talk explicitly with students about calming math anxiety. They try things like putting students into study groups whose members are responsible for following up if one of them skips class. (From Who Needs Algebra?)
While probably not perfectly ideal, this new perspective on math to students is refreshing and appears to be opening doors to allow more students to achieve their degree, which again, is becoming the new necessity over the previously golden high school diploma. Personally, I still believe the culture of teaching math needs to be seriously rethought; too much responsibility for failure is placed on individual students, as if they all suffer from math anxiety when they fail. I have a feeling that the unschooled Brazilian boy who failed at the very same math he does every day didn’t know what math anxiety was, much less suffered from it.
While there are gaps and surely more needs to be done to address this, the math requirement remains a cruel, unnecessary gateway that forces students to rethink their education, time, money, and sanity. Even worse, it is likely a systemic, society-wide issue that has been foisted onto students as their personal failure. Even this blogger had to change her college degree choice due to the mountain of pre-requisites to attain a specific math credit- and it wasn’t even a STEM degree. All that, and I am fully proficient (even intuitively) at algebra when I sew and knit. Measuring the ability to think and reason? Probably not. Measuring the control over universities as gatekeepers to their precious degrees and further, their guarded careers? Yep, probably.