The Problem Isn’t Algebra

So the algebra wars are flaring again, thanks to the California chancellor of community colleges (boldface mine):

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.

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.

You need algebra to pass an electrician’s exam. We’re hardly in fancy meats territory here.

What’s frustrating is that there’s no exploration of why some students have difficulty with algebra–it’s just treated as a given and an immutable reality.

In my previous experience as a math tutor (caveats: small n, ‘failing’ high school students), the primary reason students have problems with algebra isn’t algebra per se, it’s arithmetic. Every student had problems with basic arithmetic–every single one had problems with fractions. Watching an older high school student solve 1/2 + 1/3 for 1/5 is heartbreaking. And decomposing 13 x 7 into (10 x 7) + (3 x 7) was like performing magic. But most could figure out ‘if [famous] basketball player scores X points per quarter, how many points per game does he score?’

The problem was a lack of fluency with numbers and very, very basic number theory. Call me crazy, but students shouldn’t be graduating without that. I’ll admit that my experience (with students who were doing poorly) might not be representative, but I’ll wager it’s a non-trivial part of the problem. And replacing algebra with a stats course won’t fix this underlying problem either.

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12 Responses to The Problem Isn’t Algebra

  1. xiousgeonz says:

    I have a bigger N and exactly precisely the same observation.

    Oh, and so do these folks:

    THey analyzed errors of a reasonably sized N and interviewed students. They’ve memorized meaningless (to them) procedures and as soon as something looks funny they get it wrong (problems everybody got right were the ones that didn’t require conceptual understanding).

    And no, it’s not because these are people “just not cut out for…” — they can learn it. (Our college has some unusual faculty who teach to concepts instead of resigning to cramming more procedures…)

  2. Allena Hail says:

    Absolutely. My mom tutored math at my high school for years, and every student she got did fine in algebra once she backed up and made sure they were comfortable with fractions and other fundamentals. It was like a joke; every student needing algebra help really was missing fractions and basic arithmetic tools. Every one.
    And not knowing algebra limits people from the most basic of technical jobs. Heck, I have a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts, but because I work in video games I use algebra every day!

  3. jrkrideau says:

    I think we need new and better ways of theaching basic math in North America. This program sounds promising.

  4. Get rid of calculators in the classroom. Make kids memorize the addition & subtraction & multiplication & division tables. Make them see the relationships between the numbers. This should be started in kindergarten & by fourth grade, should be second nature. But no calculators at all. If you can’t do basic math in your head, you’re never going to be able to handle algebra.

    & as far as “only electricians” needing algebra, that’s a crock of shit. All kinds of concepts, whether they are political or emotional or even literary, depend on an understanding of algebra. It isn’t just about numbers.

  5. John Magoun says:

    I wanted to pitch in that my work as a tutor for SAT math and a teacher of institutionalized high schoolers has shown me the same thing: what’s lacking in ‘weak’ students in HS math is fundamental arithmetic and number theory understanding. They actually usually do know the rules of algebra pretty well (same operation on both sides of the equation, simplify using like terms, etc.) but blow the problem up in execution through not understanding fractions or not knowing enough multiplication tables to see how to factor a larger (i.e., 2-digit) number.
    I would agree with silverapplequeen that the calculator gets introduced way too early, but since I don’t teach elementary level math I can’t be sure exactly where things go wrong. By high school it’s very late.
    I always think that college officials who call for fewer math skills in their undergraduates are themselves probably defensive and weak in their own math skills. Not to be snarky or anything.

  6. Ten Bears says:

    Now that I’ve retired from teaching adults I teach my grandchildren it’s not necessarily about numbers, but about processes. The ability to recognize a problem, break it out into sub-processes and sequentially take the necessary steps to resolve the problem. Compare it to top down design, hierarchical management tables, fish counts over Bonneville Dam, or the A then B then C steps requisite to changing out the clutch in an old pickup.

    Often comparing apples to oranges, it none-the-less boils down to story problems.

  7. hardindr says:

    What would you say to students like Gabriella?

  8. John Magoun says:

    Hardindr, thanks for the link to the article about LA schools’ attempt to make Algebra I a graduation requirement. The article basically agrees with Mike’s point here: Gabriella can’t do long division. The article reports that the kids who repeatedly fail the class desperately need remediation going back to third or fourth grade but the school system isn’t structured to work that way; they just get to repeat the class again and again.
    In the larger picture, I think the problem stems from the idea that ALL Americans must be capable of performing pre-college level academic work in the economy of the future – which as any high school teacher can tell you, is an unrealistic assessment of the general population, at least without an accompanying massive investment in early education, anti-poverty measures, and accommodation for disabilities etc.

  9. drouse says:

    Eight observation and opinions and not one noticed that the operation sign has to be – for the equation to make sense.

  10. hipparchia says:

    n=1, and all that jazz, but for me it’s not the arithmetic, it’s the dyslexia. and I was halfway through grad school before I ever even heard of dyslexia. all I knew was that I did fine in math (and science) classes where they let me draw pictures and struggled to get through the rest of them.

    10th grade geometry (in between 9th grade algebra and 11th grade algebra) was a YUGE turning point. after finding out that I was better at both proofs and 3D objects than EVERYBODY ELSE IN THE ROOM (BIGLY!) I was never again afraid of a math class (even if they were still a struggle).

  11. David says:

    If the average global temperature rises 0.5 degrees in 25 years, and each degree increase is associated with a 10 cm rise in sea level, how long will it be before Eloy Oakley realizes that algebra is important?

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