


NPR Ed
Say Goodbye To X+Y:
Should Community Colleges Abolish Algebra?
By Kayla Lattimore and Julie Depenbrock
Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or
college degree — particularly for students of color and
firstgeneration 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.
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.
Oakley is among a growing number of educators who view intermediate
algebra as an obstacle to students obtaining their credentials —
particularly in fields that require no higher level math skills.
Their thinking has led to initiatives like Community College Pathways,
which strays away from abstract algebra to engage students in
realworld math applications.
What are you proposing?
What we're proposing is to take an honest look at what our requirements
are and why we even have them. So, for example, we have a number of
courses of study and majors that do not require algebra. We want to
take a look at other math pathways, look at the research that's been
done across the country and consider math pathways that are actually
relevant to the coursework that the student is pursuing.
You are facing pressure to increase graduation rates — only 48 percent
graduate from California community colleges with an associate's degree
or transfer to a fouryear institution within six years. As we've said,
passing college algebra is a major barrier to graduation. 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. Somewhere along the lines, since the 1950s, we decided that the
only measure of a student's ability to reason or to do some sort of
quantitative measure is algebra. What we're saying is we want as
rigorous a course as possible to determine a student's ability to
succeed, but it should be relevant to their course of study. There are
other math courses that we could introduce that tell us a lot more
about our students.
Do you buy the argument that there are just some forms of reasoning —
whether it's graphing functions or solving quadratic equations that
involve a mental discipline — that may never be actually used literally
on the job, but may improve the way young people think?
There's an argument to be made that much of what we ask students to
learn prepares them to be just better human beings, allows them to have
reasoning skills. But again, the question becomes: What data do we have
that suggests algebra is that course? Are there other ways that we can
introduce reasoning skills that more directly relate to what a
student's experience in life is and really helps them in their program
of study or career of choice?
A lot of students in California community colleges are hoping to
prepare for a fouryear college. What are you hearing from the
fouryear institutions? Are they at ease with you dropping the
requirement? Or would they then make the students take the same algebra
course they're not taking at community college?
This question is being raised at all levels of higher education — the
university level as well as the community college level. There's a
great body of research that's informing this discussion, much of it
coming from some of our top universities, like the Dana Center at the
University of Texas, or the Carnegie Foundation. So there's a lot of
research behind this and I think more and more of our public and
private university partners are delving into this question of what is
the right level of math depending on which major a student is pursuing.
And there are people writing about concepts of numeracy that may be
different from what people have been teaching all this time. Do you
have in mind a curriculum that would be more useful than intermediate
algebra?
We are piloting different math pathways within our community colleges.
We're working with our university partners at CSU and the UC, trying to
ensure that we can align these courses to best prepare our students to
succeed in majors. And if you think about it, you think about the use
of statistics not only for a social science major but for every U.S.
citizen. This is a skill that we should have all of our students have
with them because this affects them in their daily life.
Are you at all disappointed that the high schools who are sending
students to California's community colleges are not already teaching
their students these algebra skills before they graduate?
Certainly, these questions come up in K12 education, but if we
consider who really drives K12 education — that is our fouryear
university system. By creating requirements, we ensure that K12 has to
align with those requirements. So as long as algebra is the defining
math course, K12 will have to teach it.
Bob Moses, the civil rights activist, started the Algebra Project,
teaching concepts of algebra to black students in the South. He saw the
teaching of math as a continuation of the civil rights struggle.
Rates of failure in algebra are higher for minority groups than they
are for white students. Why do you think that is? Do you think a
different curriculum would have less disparate results by ethnic or
racial group?
First of all, we've seen in the data from many of the pilots across the
country that are using alternative math pathways — that are just as
rigorous as an algebra course — we've seen much greater success for
students because many of these students can relate to these different
kinds of math depending on which program of study they're in. They can
see how it works in their daily life and how it's going to work in
their career.
The second thing I'd say is yes, this is a civil rights issue, but this
is also something that plagues all Americans — particularly lowincome
Americans. 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.
Do you risk a negative form of tracking? Depriving a student of the
possibility of saying in community college: "Wow, that quadratic
equation is the most interesting thing I've ever seen. I think I'm
going to do more stuff like this."
We're certainly not saying that we're going to commit students to lower
levels of math or different kinds of math. What we're saying is we want
more students to have math skills that allow them to keep moving
forward. We want to build bridges between the kinds of math pathways
we're talking about that will allow them to continue into STEM majors.
We don't want to limit students.
The last thing I'd say is that we are already tracking students. We are
already relegating students to a life of below livable wage standards.
So we've already done so, whether intentionally or unintentionally.



