Algebra and reading competence vital for all students

Thursday, Dec. 14, 2006

Congratulations to the newly elected Board of Education members. Improving the Prince George’s County Public Schools System is a noble endeavor. Please explicitly include fluency in algebra I, arithmetic and reading comprehension in your list of goals for graduates of the PGCPSS.

As a recently retired mathematics professor with 30 years of experience teaching college students, I find it absurd that many of the better high school graduates need remedial high school algebra I or remedial reading when they enter college to make up for ineffective high school instructional programs.

A student may arrive at college orientation, proud of the grade of B he received in high school algebra II and expecting to proceed onto a higher-level math course. He is greeted with a math placement exam, whose results may decree: Surprise! Do not proceed to the next math course; take two giants steps backward. Repeat high school algebra I or even arithmetic. As a Sept. 2 New York Times article notes: ‘‘More than one in four remedial students work on elementary and middle school arithmetic. Math is where students often lose confidence and give up.”

Twelfth-graders are not as cute or huggable as third-graders. Still, the bottom line for a school system is how well prepared its 12th-graders are to move on to work, college and independent young adulthood. To achieve this goal, high school graduates need to be fluent at least in arithmetic, algebra I and reading comprehension.

Why is algebra crucial? As the1960s leader of the Mississippi Voter Rights Project, Robert Moses eloquently states: ‘‘... the most urgent social issue affecting poor people and people of color is economic access. In today’s world, economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy.” Verbal literacy, says Moses, is no longer enough. Algebra ‘‘now is the gatekeeper for citizenship; and people who don’t have it are like the people who couldn’t read and write in the Industrial Age.” This is why Moses says algebra is the next civil rights issue.

How well are the county’s better graduates prepared for college? The ‘‘better” graduates are what the Maryland Higher Education Commission has named ‘‘CORE” graduates — namely, those who complete the high school classes which closely fit the freshmen admission requirements for the University System of Maryland, including three years of high school mathematics and four years of high school English.

More than two in five (44 percent) of county CORE graduates needed to take remedial algebra or arithmetic when they entered a Maryland college in 2004 (up from 31 percent in 1998), and that almost one in three (31 percent) needed to take remedial reading (up from 19 percent in 1998). The PGCPSS instructional program was ineffective for these graduates. This situation is not merely deplorable; this should be unacceptable.

CEO John Deasy insists that his staff believes all students can achieve on a high level. For me, a modest (if not minimal) level of achievement for CORE graduates should be that they will have learned enough algebra and reading so they will not need remedial algebra or reading if and when they enter college.

My question for high school principals is: What percentage of the students in your high school who are willing to take all the CORE classes will meet my modest standard?

My follow-up question for high school principals is: What is your plan for reducing the numbers of students in your high school who will need remedial algebra or reading if and when they enter college? If not now, when?

Jerome Dancis is associate professor emeritus, Math Department at University of Maryland, College Park.