AURARIA — “Across the United States, the number one course that keeps students from finishing either an associates degree or a bachelors degree is college algebra,” says Heidi Loshbaugh, Dean for the Center of Math and Science, Community College of Denver (CCD).
Her statement is backed up by research done by Complete College America, which is funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and also by the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. These organizations have for several years looked at how college students have been impeded within math programs.
“Math should not serve as a barrier; math should serve as a tool,” Loshbaugh said. “Folks who go into STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) probably will frequently need college algebra, although that’s not true for everyone. It is true for some healthcare fields and it is for engineering fields, but for many other areas, algebra is not a course that individuals really need.”
Loshbaugh said that rather than have algebra be the course that keeps people from finishing either a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree, “we need to move toward finding the math that students need. It matters less to me that people use particular tools or particular types of technology, and what matters more is they can use that tool, whatever it is, to do meaningful work.”
The CCD Math Pathways program seeks to align students with math courses relevant to their degree. While college algebra is still essential for students studying particular fields, it might not best serve students aiming for a degree in the liberal arts.
Loshbaugh explained that, for example, a student who is on a humanities track would benefit more from math for liberal arts than she might from college algebra. “A student in the humanities program would take a small unit on finance, to understand calculating interest rates on a mortgage.”
Because the ability to understand and use data is becoming more and more important, a student in a liberal arts program could take an essential unit on statistics. “If you were looking at polling data to understand what’s going on in the election,” Loshbaugh said, “you would be able to read graphs, tables or charts to make informed decisions on poll data you’re reading.
“A student going into the social sciences—anthropology, sociology or psychology, for example—or into some healthcare field would take Introduction to Statistics. Statistics is a course that students need as we move more and more into data-driven decision-making.”
A more traditional path for students going into engineering, computer science or nursing would be college algebra. “That is aligned with statewide curriculum on the math course that a degree path would require,” said Loshbaugh.
Complete College America’s website states that college algebra has one purpose: calculus. “Therefore, placement in algebra should not be the required mathematics for all, when statistics or quantitative literacy would be more appropriate for many programs of study.”
“Part of the math learning issue,” Loshbaugh said, “seems to stem from the fact that we have looked at college algebra as sort of the end all-be all for college students. We need to think very carefully about what the upstream courses look like and what those upstream courses need. If college algebra is not a skillset that is required, then we need to remove that as a necessary course for the student.”
Loshbaugh reflected on why people in the United States don’t necessarily gravitate toward math. “There are a lot of different reasons. The relevance of math is not always made completely clear, and students don’t always understand why the math they’re learning matters to them. I would be hesitant to say that lots of people are afraid, but there is certainly some math phobia.
“At CCD we’re trying very hard to move students from math phobia to math capacity. It is important for students to have the right math class and not just one that a lot of their math faculty had taken.”
She said that another piece is around the quality of instruction. Her Center has just received grant funding to investigate that topic. “We’re doing lots of work around professional development to make sure that our faculty not only can do the math but that they are highly qualified instructors.”
How does CCD’s Math Pathways program relate to high school students? Loshbaugh explained that if one is graduating from high school, the core competencies coming out of high school in Colorado still require high school level Algebra 2 as typically taken at the junior level in high school. That is required for graduation from a Colorado high school.
Loshbaugh said, “If a student does not demonstrate either through prior learning or through a placement test that she or he is college-ready, then they will take a co-requisite support lab to help get the additional math skills they need to be successful in that college-level class.
“CCD is not trying something that is untested. There are a number of states that are implementing models that are very much like this, to help accelerate students in their capacity to complete a degree. There is a good bit of data around it.” She added that Complete College America and the Dana Center argue for fundamental, transformative change in the United States.
In Colorado, the Math Pathways task force works through the Department of Higher Education, which receives technical assistance from the Dana Center. A primary concern of the task force is that “high school students are often advised into college algebra by default even though it may not be appropriate math preparation for the degree program the student will eventually choose.”
“We’re finding more and more that the skills being taught in college algebra are not skills that students in many disciplines need,” said Loshbaugh. “We at CCD would like to see the rest of Colorado follow suit. We think it is the right thing to do.
“Within a college-educated person, there really shouldn’t be any specific course that is a barrier. If the student is willing to learn the content as a tool, our goal is to send well-educated people out into the world to live their lives in the world, not to keep them artificially somehow from being able to graduate.”
Visit the following websites for more information.
Community College of Denver: ccd.edu
Colorado Department of Higher Education: highered.colorado.gov/Academics/MathPathways
Complete College America: completecollege.org
and the Dana Center: utdanacenter.org/higher-education/dcmp
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