“I can’t do Math,” you hear this said over and over by children and adults alike. It is even “acceptable” to tout that “math isn’t your thing. You don’t hear people saying, “I can’t read,” yet it is okay to almost brag that you can’t do mathematics. Why is math such a hard subject for our country? When and how does it fall apart? As a math educator, I see so many solutions to our national math crisis that have just never been tried. We always seem to just play around with the ideas of “the basics,” learning the concepts behind the mathematics (conceptual learning, new math, mathematical modeling), and procedural learning (very similar to the “basics” in many ways.) All those things are important and we have a problem of tending to lean to one side vs. the other rather than keeping a reasonable balance between the two. However, what I see as the biggest problem is looking at, “what is our ultimate goal?” When I read an article that says a California College has done away with the requirement that all students must show mastery in Intermediate Algebra for college because non-STEM students don’t need math, it gets me thinking.

If non-STEM majors don’t need math, then do STEM majors no longer need to take literature classes and humanities classes required in the general education classes, these are not “needed” for their majors? Why do undergraduate degrees require students to take general education classes in addition to their major focus? We know the answer. It is the same reason why high schools require 4 English classes, 4 Math classes, 3-4 Science classes, 3-4 History classes, etc., in order to make a well rounded educated person. Just like English, knowing math provides a level of competence for getting around in the world, it allows you to think critically, math is used in many places that kids don’t realize until they get to be an adult. Adults who truly understand Intermediate Algebra, will be able to make more sound financial decisions in their own personal financial choices.

Additionally, Intermediate Algebra as a prerequisite for a college level math course, shouldn’t be too hard since Intermediate Algebra is a class that should be mastered in high school. So, why is a high school math giving college students so much trouble that a college has to drop a high school remedial math class requirement? This is because how we currently teach high school math is a failure. Let’s face it, some students will struggle more with mathematical concepts and others will move on and take Calculus 3 before graduating high school. There is nothing wrong with either student but we act like there is and we need to stop this. We need to stop putting on kids on the same math trajectory and expecting it to work.

My feeling is that the goal for graduation of high is to pass, with a B or better, Intermediate Algebra (which should replace tedious useless work with real world knowledge like understanding the Normal Distribution so you can talk intelligently about IQ scores and statistical research as well as linking concepts to real world like amortization tables for car loans and mortgages, these ideas are more important that long division of polynomials and adding rational fractions which is tedious.) Students should be able to take the “slow path” to math if they need it where they learn the main topics in Algebra 1, some lighter topics in Algebra 2, and some of the basic ideas of Geometry (no geometric proofs). The goal would be mastery of these topics at a B level. Anyone graduating should be ready to prove their understanding to a college prerequisite test and be ready for a Pre-Calculus class, although, if they are not a STEM major, they may choose Statistics or Financial Math.

Right now, in NC, we require students to take 4 years of math. They start learning Algebra 1 concepts as early as middle school so that once in high school, they are already learning topics in Algebra 1, Geometry, and some starter Statistical topics. By Math 2, they are being introduced to Trigonometry, Algebra 2, Probability, more Geometry, including proofs, and a small amount of what used to be in Pre-Calculus. By Math 3, the students are finishing Algebra 2, finishing Geometry, taking on more topics from Pre-Calculus, and adding in more Statistical topics. After Math 3, students must take a fourth math course. Most non Honors students take Intro to College math, which ends up being a review of Algebra topics or Discrete Math, which goes into Probability, Statistics, and Decision Making. If students were mastering all these topics, this would be wonderful but students are barely grasping all of this. We need to slow it down and cut out the fourth class, cut stuff from Math 1-3, and although still require 4 full years (not semester blocks) of math for the non-Honors track but focus on QUALITY of instruction and MASTERY of learning, rather than QUANTITY of material we can “say” they were exposed to. We will have students who learn more, are less stressed, and have a higher success rate in future math courses in college.

Students who are on the Honors track, can continue to be on their own schedule as they should not be slowed down. They can meet that high school requirement while in middle school, take the “test” showing mastery and once they get to high school, they can be moving on to learning the missing pieces from Algebra 2, Geometry (with proofs), and move into modeling classes or Pre Calculus, Calculus, Statistics, and beyond.

Written by:

Lynne Gregorio, Ph.D. Mathematics Education