WE Have a math problem

We have a math problem in this country and it isn’t just about the younger students. Every year tens of thousands of young people fail to graduate because they cannot earn enough credits in math to complete degree requirements. Maryland requires all teachers to be able to pass a basic skills test in reading, writing and math. It is the math portion of the test that consistently trips people up. Even when they finally pass the test, it would be hard to call it a high skill area for them. Yet they will go on to teach children math, an area in which they are barely proficient.

Two-thirds of students entering a community college and 40% of those attending a 4-year school are enrolled in zero credit remedial math classes. Presently we teach math before college as a funnel leading to advanced algebra, precalculus and calculus. What is particularly interesting is that, with the exception of some STEM careers, our economy needs more math skills in using data for physics, finance, politics and education. Math skills are critical to decipher misleading news reports. What we need are more people with good quantitative reasoning skills so that they can function as both citizens and career builders. What we need are statistics and data literacy. But we still resolutely teach algebra 2, precalculus and calculus. Never mind their usefulness.

These remedial math courses which are expensive, even though they do not yield credit, act as a gatekeeper to higher level math classes. If the content were modified, they could become a gateway to math literacy which would not only help the college student but could increase math literacy.

A new math curriculum developed by the Carnegie Foundation is called Quantway 1 and Quantway 2. The curriculum compresses remedial and college level content into one year. BUT the approach is totally different. It uses real-world scenarios to engage students, asking them to apply math formulas to calculating the dosage of a baby’s medication, or analyzing the racial disparities in prison populations. The students are required to work in groups to eliminate the feeling of isolation for students who see themselves as poor in math. Think of it as a whole course in word problems instead of the typical approach of one separate unit. The second year of the curriculum is called Statway. The emphasis there is on using statistics. Student pass rates are 3-4 times higher than in standard remedial courses. In the 2016-17 school year 69 institutions of higher learning have adopted the program. Hardly a drop in the ocean of higher ed programs but it is a start.

We are like mice running on a wheel. Elementary students are taught by teachers who can barely do the math themselves. Secondary education students are taught math that is a funnel to a higher level of math that is not meaningful to them and they have little to no use for in their lives. These students move on to post-secondary ed to discover they are not prepared and must be remediated. They lose out and our economy loses out because they are not getting the math understanding and literacy that they need. Stop the world, we need to get off. We have a math problem and it keeps getting worse.

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