The Washington, DC-based National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) released a stirring report this May entitled “What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? The English and Mathematics Required of First Year Community College Students.” The two-year study investigated seven rural, urban and suburban community colleges in different states with student populations ranging from 3,000 to 30,000 in order to determine precisely which skills and knowledge high school graduates need to succeed at the college level and in their future careers. The report found that many community college programs require little to no math; that the level of math used in these programs rarely exceeds that of middle school; and that Algebra II is not essential for most careers.
Many crucial mathematical concepts are being swept under the rug in the rush to move through Algebra I to Algebra II and Calculus, according to the NCEE. Phil Daro, co-chair of the study’s Mathematics Panel and co-director for developing the math Common Core State Standards (“the Standards,” or just “CCSS”), makes the case that curricula should spend more time developing students’ understanding of probability, complex measurements, arithmetic, ratios, proportions and simple equations. “We were surprised how little math is used in first-year community college courses, and what is used is mostly middle school math,” Daro said. “Our system makes no sense for these students: even though so many students have a shaky understanding of the middle school mathematics they really need, high school courses spend most of these students’ time on topics not needed for their college programs.”
The NCEE report argues that if schools dedicated more class time to these kinds of topics, and if college placement exams took away the incentive for high schoolers to study little-used, upper-level mathematics by altering their material to better reflect the realities of community college, students will be more competent in their college courses. However, not everyone agrees with the NCEE.
Linda Rosen, CEO of the nonprofit Change the Equation (CTEq), has several bones to pick with the NCEE’s study. First, Rosen questions the validity of the study’s methodology. The NCEE derives some of its numbers on math in the workforce from a 2011 Georgetown study, which she says only accounts for a narrow definition of STEM jobs that “doesn’t include any jobs in math-dependent fields like finance, social science, management or health care.” Likewise, while the sample of community colleges seems diverse, the study does not state how typical the colleges actually are.
Second, Rosen contends that high schools should not necessarily lower their educational standards because community colleges are doing so. “The authors are right to be concerned that many high school graduates cannot clear even a low bar. This is the challenge of US school reform in a nutshell,” she said. “Yet surely the answer is not to lower the bar now so that we can raise it again later. Instead, we have to step up our support for students earlier in K–12.” And just because the skills learned in Algebra II may not directly apply to community college coursework does not mean that upper-level math doesn’t have value—it teaches students logical thinking and complex problem solving.
Community colleges are attended by 45 percent of US undergraduates. Half of them are explicitly training to directly enter the workforce upon graduation. Either high school is inadequately preparing its students for college, or college is letting down high school graduates. Regardless of the perspective, we as a nation need to move forward and give our children the best education possible.
Did You Know? As it turns out, some of the highest paying jobs require mathematical skills beyond basic algebra. The top ten list by Forbes includes degrees that require skills in math, engineering and the sciences. The number one best-paying job is that of anesthesiologists, followed by surgeons, gynecologists, maxillofacial surgeons, general internists, orthodontists, all other physicians and surgeons, family and general practitioners, psychiatrists and, finally, senior executives. Notice a trend? Of the listed jobs, 9 out of 10 require a medical degree—which includes math far beyond basic skills—and the odd-man-out still demands further learning via an MBA program. Earning an MBA, the norm for senior executives these days, usually requires, at the very least, proficiency in higher-level math-related disciplines such as statistics, accounting, and/or economics. As a comparison, most of the worst-paying jobs include those in food service, agricultural laborers and ticket attendants, although none of these typically require a college degree.