The Algebra Proxy

In the last few years, Americans have been told repeatedly that we’re not internationally competitive because of our public schools.  We’re told that students are not college and career ready.  We’re told that Algebra is a key to being college and career ready, and the Common Core standards have pushed algebra into elementary grades, with substantially more material at the middle school level than most state curriculum models have included in the past.  Does this make sense?

Indicators of College Success

I spend several hours reviewing Google searches about the indicators of college success.  Indeed, from an educational research perspective, algebra is usually found to be the most significant high school course that is associated with college success.  If one adds other indicators, often the next most significant indicators are additional advanced math courses–Geometry, Algebra II, Trig and Calculus–the more a student completes, the more likely the student will be successful in college.

As an English and Social Studies educator who values the increased emphasis on critical thinking in the Common Core,  (see my Critical Thinking post here) this is inherently problematic to consider.  What’s going on?  Are math teachers so much better at getting kids ready for college than other teachers?  And how many of you are using Algebra in your everyday lives?  I suspect–excuse me, I know–that most adults could no longer pass a typical high school Algebra or graduation level math exam.  This assertion is regularly validated throughout the country every few years whenever reporters jump on a story about issues with high school examinations.  They get a sample test, give it to a few hundred folks, and report on how awful adult math skills are, even for college grads.

I took a strong high school program, went to a quality college, studied physics for a year before changing to English and the Humanities, and had a much better math academic training program than most adults.  I could not pass the current New York Algebra I Regents Exam within the allocated time.   Today, despite an earned Ph.D. and years of successful teaching and administration, I would have a significant chance of being labeled not ready for college and career based on scores I would earn on New York Regents exams in math and science.  There’s something amiss here.  I’ll do fine on the English and Social Studies exams: These represent the content I have used throughout my career.  I haven’t used much math, chemistry, biology, or physics, and while I still read the science section of the New York Times and understand the content, I’m glad it’s written for a general audience and not for science majors.

I think we need to consider the concept of proxies to understand the research results about algebra.  The nation is looking for a ‘quick and dirty’ way to make judgements about kids, and algebra is that way.  By a quick and dirty proxy, I mean we want a low-cost and easy to calculate measure that represents the concept of college and career readiness.  There’s something about success in high school math classes that suggests a student is ready to take on the increased challenges of life beyond grade 12.  Students who do well with advanced math classes (and for other researchers, Advanced Placement courses in general–the harder courses in high schools) do better in college.  (See p. 10 of “Moving Beyond AYP” and a good set of references here)  What underlying skills do successful math students have that correlate to the skills needed for successful college course-taking?  It’s not the math itself that is the key to college success–most students don’t go on to study math in college, so they didn’t need the math skills themselves–they needed the underlying skills for which math is a quick and dirty proxy.

There are many possible answers.  Here are a few I’ve interpreted from my scan of the research–you can add more from your own readings.  Math requires persistence from students: they often need to struggle to ‘get it.’  Math doesn’t come easily–there are problems to solve, and for many that’s hard work.  It requires a level of academic self-discipline to master.  There are right answers to the problems even when there are multiple pathways to arrive at the solutions, so results are clearly measurable and students can see where they stand.  It’s more concrete than literary analysis or historical interpretation, but there are still creative and abstract challenges in arriving at solutions, even though many folks think that because math has right answers, it’s a linear subject.

We need to look more carefully at this proxy for success.  What, exactly, are the skills kids need, and why can’t we build these skills into other high school, middle school and elementary school courses so that we open up college and career readiness to more students, and improve teaching the complex thinking college requires in all our subjects.

As I’ve said in another way in my blog on Critical Thinking, I believe that the emphasis on deep reading and analysis across nonfiction text that we find in the Common Core is the start of a pathway toward making all of our K-12 curriculum a preparation for success in college and careers.  It’s overdue. Those who teach other subjects (not math, and not the science courses that depend so much on math concepts) should be considering our roles in deepening the intellectual expectations we have for students.

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