The chancellor of the California community college system has stated that institutions’ algebra requirements are “the biggest barrier” for “underemployed or unemployed Americans,” and as such is … a civil rights issue.
According to NPR, Chancellor Eloy Ortiz 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.”
In an interview with the chancellor, NPR’s Robert Siegel pointed out the low graduation rate in the community college system (48% for an associate’s degree), and then asked Oakley if ditching algebra wasn’t just the “easy way out.”
Oakley retorted “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.”
[Q]: 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?
[A]: 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. …
[Q]: 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.”
[A]: 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.
IMAGE: Peter Woodman/Flickr