Monday, October 06, 2014



This weekend, two thoughtful stories about community college students got unusual play.  Both were about sympathetic students whose studies were in constant tension with the need to make money (and, in one case, with the needs of a young child).  In both cases, you couldn’t help but root for the student, and in both cases, relatively small amounts of money made a terrible difference.

The stories are pretty representative of many community college students.  Many of them are living on the economic margins, and their studies are easily derailed by shifting work hours, abrupt and expensive car repairs, or other vagaries of life.  

As a policy issue, it gets complicated quickly.  But it’s also potentially instructive for those of us on the other side of college (and grad school).

Looking back on my own student days, there were a few times when economics could easily have derailed me.  But I had two things that some students don’t have now: access to credit, and when things got really bad, parents who could help.

I remember one expensive car repair in grad school for which I had neither choice nor means.  The area I lived in pretty much required a car, so just going without wasn’t really an option.  (Some people tried; they lasted a few weeks.)  Old cars that are cheap to buy are often expensive to maintain, which I learned the hard way.  When the transmission went, there was no earthly way I could cover both that and rent on my grad student money.  After a lot of agonizing, I finally called for parental help.  I hated doing it, but at the time, I didn’t see any other way.

What if I didn’t have that option?

That’s where race and class become mutually reinforcing.  I had middle-class parents who could, when the storm got really bad, throw me a life preserver.  (They were divorced, which made asking just that much more fun, but that’s another issue.)  I was responsible for my own day-to-day stuff, but at some level, I knew I was working with a net.  That, combined with the we’re-all-broke-so-let’s-take-it-easy-on-each-other culture of grad students, made it possible to tread water economically for a while.  Knowing that I wouldn’t have to chuck it all and start bagging groceries allowed for a level of focus that wouldn’t have been possible if everything were riding on me.  Not having kids yet helped, too.

Decades later, it’s easy to forget moments like that.  It’s easy to look past the lack of static from landlords, the occasional financial rescue, and the benefit of the doubt from neighbors. Those just sort of fade into the background, the better to highlight stories of bizarre advisor behavior and the various indignities of grad school.  But those small favors made completion possible. Whatever “merit” came later, from doing well the work that the degree required, was made possible first by some cultural tailwinds.

I don’t bring this up out of guilt; I don’t think I did anything wrong.  It’s about working to extend those tailwinds to everyone.  

That’s hard in practice, because the issues are so complex and the money so scarce.  But the impulse, I think, is right.  As long as we put students in positions where only those with cushions can make it, then only those with cushions will.  The rest, well,...

I’ll be much more comfortable with talk of “merit” when cushions don’t matter.  Until then, there’s work to do.

Sounds like a nationwide movement to ban mathematics would be the most cost-effective way to increase the college graduation rate.
I couldn't possibly agree more.

"Math is hard" - Barbie

Describing a 7th or 8th grade basic algebra class as mathematics is quite a stretch, let alone one that includes teaching fractions. I am sure that one reason "some college" (like an AA or AS degree) is required for many jobs is it is the only way to be sure the job applicants are not innumerate.

One "college level" math class at my CC teaches how to use (not memorize) the compound interest formula to understand compounding of both debt and investments. I would not eliminate that math requirement. (Apropos the NYTimes story linked above, posted on my Fb page last weekend by a friend who got an MBA after starting at a CC, the course I just described does not include the 9th grade topic of solving a quadratic equation mentioned in that article.)

IMO, the problem would vanish in 5 years if ALL grade 3-7 teachers knew enough elementary math to teach it all with confidence and throw out the bad curricula being used in many schools.
This is OT, but gives New Brunswick a 71, which is pretty darned good by American standards. By contrast, Bloomington, IN, where I went to grad school and lived for 6 years without a car, has a walkscore of 39. I imagine you could have gone without a car pretty easily if you'd really tried...
Wow, that is . . . mainsplainy.
For the record, I agree with the original post so much that it is almost uncommentable, which is what I was trying to say earlier.

Speaking as someone who is both good at math (as a college senior, I shared the highest score at my college that year on the Putnam Competition, among other math nerd things) and who has taught math in all grades 6-12, I think you really misunderstand the k-12 system if you place all of this on the teachers.

Don't forget that the concept of "prerequisites" doesn't exist in grades 3-7. At least in my experience, if you fail 3rd grade math, you're still a 4th grader in the fall and will take 4th grade math. Repeat throughout your academic career. I once had a high school sophomore in a geometry class who told me he hadn't passed a math class since second grade. (He didn't pass geometry either.)

I've taught at a high school where the counselor didn't believe in prerequisites either (she kept putting kids in the next math class in sequence whether or not they'd passed, with the idea that they'd make up the failed class with a computer based "credit recovery" program), but I prefer to believe she's a fluke. (I was math department head, and I spent a LOT of time trying to get her to stop doing this, but to no avail. She'd just tell me they couldn't graduate on time if they fell behind in math, and they couldn't use the (easier) credit recovery program until they'd failed the class, so it was important to fail them on through each year.)

If students aren't held to the idea that they have to learn the subject to move on, and no plan is in place to remediate previous missed content over the summer so they're ready for fall, no amount of the teacher knowledge or confidence will fix late elementary and early middle school math.

Also, at your college, where do the just-off-the-plane, haven't-been-in-school-in-10-years refugee students who speak almost no English start the math sequence? In k-12, the answer is "in the same math class as everyone else their age". I had high school students from Somalia who hadn't been in school in over a decade taking algebra I. This wasn't fair to either them or the rest of the class since they hadn't had any previous math about basic arithmetic (if that), but that's how old they were, so that's what school they went to, so that's what math class they were in. (In my state, you can't receive high school credit for any class below algebra I, so that's generally the lowest class offered.)

In a rural district I'd taught in previously, I also once had a Made in America problem in a similar situation. I had a kid who's parents had pulled him out in early elementary to "homeschool" him on their ranch. He probably learned a lot about ranching, but no particular math or other academic subjects until they handed him back off to the school system in 7th grade.

Anyway, I agree that it would help if all elementary school and middle school teachers were both competent and confident at math, but if you think that's all we need to fix this you're missing a lot about the overall dysfunction of the k-12 math system.

On another note, It would also help if they'd quit changing the k-12 math standards every few years and re-arranging which grades things are taught in. Because little Timmy is now retroactively supposed to have learned x skill in 5th grade, we don't have time to teach it in 6th grade since it won't be on the 6th grade standardized test (which has no impact on little Timmy's advancing to 7th grade no matter how badly he does, but can cause the school to be labeled as failing and get the staff in trouble if he doesn't do well). Never mind that last year in 5th grade it was was 6th grade skill, so that teacher didn't have time to teach it because it wasn't on the 5th grade standardized test that year. Having these yearly tests with specific skills being all you're evaluated on as a school encourages short-term thinking in terms of what and how you teach, but that's a whole different rant.
Anon@9:13AM -
You raise some valid points, but many of them indicate to me that your students would be better off if people like you were making all of the decisions, and better yet if you were teaching 4th or 5th grade. Teachers who hate math and hate fractions should not be teaching either one. Decisions should not be made by principals who used to be just as bad.

In my state, students who fail the 3rd grade math test are held back unless they can pass it after a summer of remediation. Ditto for 5th grade. This does push the dropout decision into earlier grades, but the problem remains that so many fail those tests. There are good reasons (data) to believe that this is due as much to curriculum/book choice as teachers, at least at the lowest grades. Data concern a poor demographic school outperforming a middle demographic school.

Our standards have been pretty stable and common core will reinforce that stability, but I would urge you to look at the books more than the standards. You might be appalled.
Oh, I forgot to answer your accidentally apropos question about Somali refugees. The one who came to my college spoke excellent English and started math in precalculus, but didn't really need it. This student was lucky to get out alive within a few years of the utter collapse of that state, and to have been in a school system superior to our own prior to that event.

This was, of course, several years ago. But we do continue to get our share of refugees of all sorts. We place them where they belong in ESOL and math once they come to us from HS or fresh off the plane, and they only advance if they actually make progress. I don't know if they are socially promoted in language arts, but I do know that students cannot move on to the next math class unless they actually pass the prerequisite course.
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