Math requirements don't add up for many students

August 02, 2002|By Alphonse Buccino and Daniel Buccino

THE SWELTERING summer numbers tell a dismal story.

About 41,000 students, or 40 percent of all Baltimore public schoolchildren, required remedial studies in summer school. Math and science teachers are hard to recruit, Baltimore city schools learned this summer while working to fill an estimated 1,200 teaching vacancies. And barely 15 percent of students enrolled at Baltimore City Community College in 1997 graduated or transferred to a four-year college, in part because of the amount of remedial coursework they must do.

Taken together, these numbers are daunting. The current system limits students' potential in school and opportunities for advancement.

A recent Abell Foundation report on BCCC demonstrates that the conventions of remedial education and gateway courses in mathematics are barriers to access to higher education. To graduate, students must take one college-level math class; many must first complete a series of remedial math classes up through intermediate algebra or pass a rigorous math exam. Significant numbers arrive at community college unprepared to do either, and drop out. The requirements become a filter through which many never pass.

This is a hidden scandal in many U.S. colleges and universities, by no means limited to BCCC: Remedial math and gateway courses (including that rite of passage called calculus) are wreaking havoc with students and foreclosing pathways to opportunity in our highly competitive economy.

The Abell findings suggest a better approach would be to ensure that the math required for most students is that needed for their real-world career paths. The bar could be set higher for those bound for math- and science-based professions.

Here's another telling finding: The latest survey of course enrollments by a group of professional organizations in the mathematical sciences found that in fall 2000, college algebra -- a first-year course -- had the largest enrollment of any credit-bearing mathematics course. Although college algebra traditionally launches students into calculus, less than 10 percent of college algebra students actually entered calculus, the survey found. The other 90 percent of students are there because they are required to be there, not because they elect to be. Moreover, about half the students who take the course fail it.

"Thus," the survey concludes, "college algebra blocks academic opportunities and plans for approximately 200,000 students per semester."

That would be the 200,000 students who flunk college algebra, to which must be added those countless students across the nation who never even get to college algebra because they flunk preparatory math courses or cannot pass community college filtering requirements.

Many teachers of mathematics at all levels are working on reforms for this unreasonable waste and academic carnage. These reforms include new curricula and teaching methods, uses of technology, and roles for calculators to better address students' understanding of mathematical concepts beyond rote computation.

Unfortunately, reform is being attacked and undermined by other mathematics faculty members who are traditionalists, producing a conflict dubbed "the Math Wars."

"Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true," said Bertrand Russell, the noted philosopher and logician. Although certain calculations and computations must be correct, the subject of mathematics is abstract, not concrete, and its conclusions may or may not be applicable, or "true," in the real world. As a result, what to teach, how to teach it, and how to test it have generated many debates over the years.

The logic of algebra is formalistic, the manipulation of abstract symbols according to certain rules. In dealing with manipulation of symbols, it is hard for some students to find the meaning of what they are doing or the rules to be followed.

The "drill and kill" pedagogy of many math fundamentalists crushes many students under the concreteness of their methods and seems related to the impossibility for so many students to clear even the most basic math gateway requirements at BCCC and elsewhere, leading to the appalling dropout rates.

So common-sense mathematical reform continues: The U.S. Department of Labor is looking at formal education's relationship to the real-world, quantitative needs of citizens, consumers, workers and employers.

Not all will require baptism by college algebra, and many will be helped to find ways to demonstrate their workplace abilities and potential by means other than traditional testing.

There are many talented resources for mathematics reform in Baltimore and Maryland, including faculty currently in the math department of BCCC. Identifying and engaging such resources will require care to prevent undercutting and sabotage from the traditionalists so that more students can make the best of their summers and have full access to higher education opportunities.

Alphonse Buccino is emeritus professor of mathematics education and former academic dean at the University of Georgia. Daniel Buccino, a Baltimore psychotherapist, is on the clinical faculties of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University of Maryland School for Social Work.

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