Algebra II Revisited

Algebra II Revisited

There’s a new (May, 2013) and, I think, very important report out from the National Center on Education and the Economy entitled “What does it really mean to be college and work ready?”  The organization and been around since 1988, and reports its work as “…researching the world’s best performing education systems to unlock their secrets.”  I strongly recommend you read it.  Here’s a video commentary on the report by their president, Marc Tucker, video commentary from  Insert

I wrote about Algebra II and the Common Core in this previous blog, and NCEE’s research offers another commentary on the value of Algebra II as an indicator of being college and career ready.  I’ll offer some quotes from the report to expand my prior argument against Algebra II for all.

National Center for Education and the Economy Math Findings

NCEE opens their report, which actually covers both ELA and Mathematics college and work ready issues, by noting that 45% of students entering higher education for college degrees or for career preparation enroll in community colleges.  Hence, NCEE argues, looking deeply at the requirements for success in community colleagues is a practical and a real world indicator of what it means to be college and work ready.  About half of community college students go on to four year programs, further supporting their rationale for looking at community colleges.  The rest who graduate are taking a training program that leads to a career option.  The study examined “the most popular and diverse programs….” (p. 2) in randomly selected community colleges in seven states:  Accounting, Automotive Technology, Biotech/Electrical Technology, Business, Criminal Justice, Early Childhood Education, Information Technology/Computer Programming, and Nursing, plus the General Track.  For math, they looked at the math actually taught in the “initial credit bearing courses” in the programs (p. 2).  They looked at the textbooks, graded student assignments, tests and exams to “analyze the reading and writing skills that are required…” in both math and English Composition.

The findings were surprising.  Only one program required first year students to know Algebra II.  NCEE notes that Algebra II content is required for students who will take calculus or use calculus in their work, but citing a 2011 study from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown, NCEE notes that only about five percent of the working population needs to understand calculus.   “Indeed, community college first year programs of study typically assume that students have not mastered Algebra I.  The most advanced mathematics content used in the vast majority of the first-year college programs we analyzed can reasonably be characterized as the mathematics associated with Algebra 1.25, that is some, but not all, of the topics usually associated with Algebra I, plus a few other topics, mostly related to geometry or statistics (p. 3).”  They continue by noting that the math that ‘most enables” student success is middle school math, ‘especially arithmetic, ration, proportion, expressions and simple equations (p. 3).”

They observe that most high school grads don’t actually have good command of middle school fundamentals, and that competency in math that is rarely taught at any level — “schematics, geometric visualization and complex applications of measurement (p.3)” are also competencies that would lead to college success.

Algebra II is not a college and career prerequisite

Their conclusions on pages 4-6 make this clear statement about Algebra II:  “Mastery of Algebra II is widely thought to be a prerequisite for success in college and careers.  Our research shows that that is not so. The most demanding mathematics courses typically required of community college students are those required by the mathematics department,…but the content of the first year mathematics courses offered by the …. mathematics department is typically… Algebra I, some Algebra II and a few topics in geometry…. Based on our data one cannot make the case that high school graduates must be proficient in Algebra Ii to be ready for college and careers.”

They further conclude that rushing students into Algebra I early misses the opportunity to emphasize the very strong level of content mastery that should be obtained at the middle school level before moving on to higher math.  They suggest that understanding basic concepts at higher levels than now expected would permit students ‘to learn whatever mathematics they need for the path they subsequently want to pursue more quickly and easily than they can now( p. 4).”

More high school math options needed

Another noteworthy conclusion (p. 5) is “American high schools should consider abandoning the requirement that all high school students study a program of mathematics leading to calculus and instead offer that mathematics program as one among a number of options available for high school students … with other options available (e.g., statistics, data analysis and applied geometry) that include the mathematics needed by workers in other clusters of occupations.  By doing so high schools will almost certainly expand opportunity to many students who now find success in college closed off by a one-size-fit-all sequence of mathematics topics that actually fits the requirements only for a very narrow range of occupations.”

These are powerful words that fly in the face of Common Core standards.  But if the CCSS are expected to prepare students for college and careers, who determined the specifics of these standards?  When one considers the folks who wrote the math standards, one sees individuals highly vested in core math content who seem to have taken highly competitive college admissions criteria as their basic and their only competency target.  They ignored the career level requirements of most workers in the nation, despite clear research about what career mathematics competency standards should be.

Let’s have a look at job requirements.  I’ve read elsewhere (See Andrew Hacker’s New York Times 2012 opinion piece or this commentary from Get Schooled, by Maureen Downey.  This comment excerpt from penguin mom on the Get Schooled piece reproduces my argument rather well:

I was a math/computer science major in college. I did use what I learned in my Algebra 2, Trig, and Calculus high school classes… in college. Once I got out of college, I did Not use that information again even when working in the computer field. You do not need to know logs or rational equations or trig to write a cash register program or pretty much any program besides an engineering one. I didn’t pick Algebra 2 back up until I entered the teaching arena and started teaching the concepts again. Besides the general logic skills learned from solving the problems, I really don’t know of a lot in Algebra 2 that will translate into real world usage for the vast majority of the students. Graphed a line or parabola recently anyone? Used the quadratic formula? Solved a Trig equation? I think it would be Much better to require strong Economic, Personal Finance, Business Accounting and (usable) Statistics courses for every student. That information would be used in just about any field. Figuring interest or profit. Understanding (at least somewhat) what poll numbers actually mean. Keeping a budget and balancing a checkbook. Those are all useful skills.

Get this NCEE report, read the math section, and if you are a generalist, read the English Literature findings as well.  These are a topic for another time.