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.