Opinion

It's not the algebra that's tripping up students — it's the teaching

To the editor: I congratulate Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley on his willingness to reform antiquated math requirements in the California community college system. I am concerned, however, at the way in which the problem is being framed. (“Drop algebra requirement for non-STEM majors, California community colleges chief says,” July 17)

It is far more useful to consider what it is about how algebra is currently taught that leads to racialized outcomes of failure. This isn’t a problem with algebra or the students.

The truth is that many math faculty are hired solely for their subject knowledge and not their teaching expertise. The results are classes that lack the cultural competence to make math relevant to students, who are instead made to feel dumb.

This problem goes much deeper than students of color not being able to pass intermediate algebra. To fully address the problem requires changes in teaching practices, insisting on unbiased, quality teaching, and reforming hiring practices to reflect the unique diversity of our students.

Estela Mara Bensimon, Los Angeles

The writer is director of the Center for Urban Education at USC’s Rossier School of Education.

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To the editor: Our educational systems are fast becoming the exemplar for American exceptionalism.

Is there an educational goal that is a challenge? Make an exception! Eliminate it or provide an easy out such as “credit recovery” — anything other than adequately preparing students to meet the challenge.

Intermediate algebra is a watershed course in opening up a wide range of future possibilities for all students. My kids had to pass a calculus class, not because I expected them to need it in their as yet undetermined futures, but because it broadened their horizons, demanded critical thinking and helped develop crucial problem-solving skills essential for success.

Personally, I use algebraic skills to think through any number of common situations that require more than basic arithmetic to make an informed decision. I am quite skeptical that students who do not master algebra will be able to use statistics or any other higher form of math to solve the problems they will encounter.

John Brock, Hansville, Wash.

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To the editor: I earned a master’s degree in English and taught for 40 years, but I never got past Algebra 1 in high school, and I never took one college math class.

Yes, I hate math, but I always knew enough to figure my students grades and to keep a checkbook. Never have I looked to algebra to solve a problem. And, surprise, I’ve never missed it.

Maybe if you’re an engineer or even a surgeon, higher math has some use. But for many students, algebra is an unnecessary roadblock to success and to middle-class money.

Cheryl Clark, Long Beach

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