21 Jul 2017

First California Community College, Then Yale

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NPR interviews the head of California’s community college system, who is arguing in favor of eliminating Algebra as a course requirement. The reason? Algebra is too hard for minorities.

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.

Their thinking has led to initiatives like Community College Pathways, which strays away from abstract algebra to engage students in real-world math applications. …

What are you proposing?

What we’re proposing is to take an honest look at what our requirements are and why we even have them. So, for example, we have a number of courses of study and majors that do not require algebra. We want to take a look at other math pathways, look at the research that’s been done across the country and consider math pathways that are actually relevant to the coursework that the student is pursuing.

You are facing pressure to increase graduation rates — only 48 percent graduate from California community colleges with an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year institution within six years. As we’ve said, passing college algebra is a major barrier to graduation. But is this the easy way out? Just strike the algebra requirement to increase graduation rates instead of teaching math more effectively?

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.

Do you buy the argument that there are just some forms of reasoning — whether it’s graphing functions or solving quadratic equations that involve a mental discipline — that may never be actually used literally on the job, but may improve the way young people think?

There’s an argument to be made that much of what we ask students to learn prepares them to be just better human beings, allows them to have reasoning skills. But again, the question becomes: What data do we have that suggests algebra is that course? Are there other ways that we can introduce reasoning skills that more directly relate to what a student’s experience in life is and really helps them in their program of study or career of choice?

A lot of students in California community colleges are hoping to prepare for a four-year college. What are you hearing from the four-year institutions? Are they at ease with you dropping the requirement? Or would they then make the students take the same algebra course they’re not taking at community college?

This question is being raised at all levels of higher education — the university level as well as the community college level. There’s a great body of research that’s informing this discussion, much of it coming from some of our top universities, like the Dana Center at the University of Texas, or the Carnegie Foundation. So there’s a lot of research behind this and I think more and more of our public and private university partners are delving into this question of what is the right level of math depending on which major a student is pursuing.

And there are people writing about concepts of numeracy that may be different from what people have been teaching all this time. Do you have in mind a curriculum that would be more useful than intermediate algebra

We are piloting different math pathways within our community colleges. We’re working with our university partners at CSU and the UC, trying to ensure that we can align these courses to best prepare our students to succeed in majors. And if you think about it, you think about the use of statistics not only for a social science major but for every U.S. citizen. This is a skill that we should have all of our students have with them because this affects them in their daily life. …

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?

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.

The second thing I’d say is yes, this is a civil rights issue, but this is also something that plagues all Americans — particularly low-income Americans. If you think about all the underemployed or unemployed Americans in this country who cannot connect to a job in this economy — which is unforgiving of those students who don’t have a credential — the biggest barrier for them is this algebra requirement. It’s what has kept them from achieving a credential.


From the perspective of the Left, colleges are there to supply credentials which are tickets to comfortable, well-paying positions in Society. Results must be equal, so if some groups are having trouble earning those credentials, it is necessary to grease the skids. The goal is not education; the goal is credentials.

12 Feedbacks on "First California Community College, Then Yale"


There is no good reason to require algebra or even English composition for community college students. The actual reason is because the teachers get to decide and the teachers for these course need students to keep their jobs.

There is a part of me who believes that every four year college graduate be required to not only take algebra but also two years of calculus. My only reason to justify this is that there are so many “basketweaving” degrees out there that it demeans the value of a college degree. So my feeling is; fine, get a degree in woman’s studies but also complete real college level classes to justify the diploma.

Karen Myers

Speaking as a one-time math major…

If you’re only ever going to learn one “serious” mathematics course for a life outside of STEM, a good argument could be made that statistics is a better tool than algebra. Statistics would convey a level of mathematical literacy to many more people, and be of far more daily utility, than algebra.


Perhaps true… But statistics is useful for gamblers and liars. I can tell you all you need to know about statistics and save you the time of a college course. Almost all statistics that is touted/printed and used to make a point is either false or the results aren’t even significant. 57% of statistics is wrong and the rest is made up on the spot.


I agree with the comment about statistics as being more useful, but, having studied statistics, I doubt you’d make much of a dent on the young skulls full of mush you will encounter most of the time. Statistics is conceptually difficult, much more so than the mostly mechanical aspect of algebra.

My view is that much of one’s school experience is not about the content, it’s about proving that you can learn and do a difficult thing, that you have the temperament, ambition, and work ethic to get through these trials successfully. I would not be interested in hiring people in any capacity who eschewed math because it’s “too hard.”

Dick the Butcher

Am I the only one thinking that low expectations is more harmful to minorities than the KKK?

JK Brown

The reason algebra is hard for many students is that it is the first exposure to abstract thinking. The strange thing is that many math teachers don’t seem to realize this. This limits their ability to help guides student through this transformation of their thinking.

How do you learn statistics using letters and symbols in place of numbers when you’ve not learned algebra which is the mathematics based on using letters and other general symbols in place of numbers in formulas and equations?

Seattle Sam

“colleges are there to supply credentials “. Yes, but if we eliminate all the “hard stuff”, what does the credential mean?

Today 47% of high school seniors graduate with an A average. So what does an A mean now?


It’s staggering to read some of the comments above in this site – I would expect to see them at NYT, or Salon, whatever.
I’m from a generation that decreed there was “no good reason” to learn Latin (not to say Greek). Well, suffice to say that “minor writers” of all kinds alive then (C. S. Lewis, P. G. Wodehouse, Anthony Powell, Raymond Chandler et al.) would be – with good reason – considered genius, today.
No wonder Muslims despise the West. And, since I have no children (“I left to nobody the legacy of our misery”, as was said by the greatest Brazilian writer, and one of the greatest in any idiom, Machado de Assis – a genius and, by the way, a bastard son of a white man and a black woman, who never had the help of anyone our anybody but himself); since I have no children, as I was saying, they are welcome to it.


Shoot–just eliminate all the tough courses and say anybody who shows up gets a degree. Problem solved and we get a much more highly educated population. The Chinese will be impressed I’m sure.

Spurt Reynolds

Math is the universal language. It is the same all over the world. For most people a second language is tough and you have to practice it to become fluent. The same with math.

With good math skills a whole mother world of opportunity would open up to monorities.

bob sykes

A great many of these minority students have IQ’s in the 80’s, and are only marginally educable, and only for simple manual tasks at that.

As to the relative importance of probability and statistics to algebra, I would have to agree. But, you cannot understand statistics without partial differential equations, and for that you need algebra, geometry, some number theory, et al.

Statistics is one of the most subtle and difficult of all subjects, and the proof of that is that Ph. D. scientists at major research universities like MIT routinely screw up their statistical analyses. A large majority of papers in refereed journals contain statistical analyses that do not in any way support the researchers’ conclusions.

Seattle Sam

My daughter who teaches 10th grade English in California tells me that anyone who actually shows up for class and does some of the assignments can graduate with a HS diploma.


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