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College chancellor: Requiring students to take algebra is a 'civil rights issue
California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley says that requiring all students to take algebra is a "civil rights issue." Oakley said he wants to get rid of the requirement for any community college student who isn't a STEM major, or focusing their studies in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

College chancellor: Requiring students to take algebra is a 'civil rights issue

A community college chancellor in California is proposing to get rid of the requirement that all students take intermediate algebra in an effort to boost the graduation rate at his institution.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of California Community Colleges System, made the suggestion during a recent interview with National Public Radio, calling the requirement a "civil rights issue." Specifically, Oakley said he wants to get rid of the requirement for any community college student who isn't a STEM major, or focusing their studies in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

"What we're proposing is to take an honest look at what our requirements are and why we even have them," Oakley said, adding that the college system he leads is going to look into "other math pathways" based on research at other colleges across the country.

Oakley said those "other math pathways" should be "actually relevant to the coursework that the student is pursuing."

He took it one step further, suggesting that dropping the requirement would not only benefit students academically, but also portrayed it as a "civil rights issue."

“This is also something that plagues all Americans, particularly low-income Americans,” Oakley said. “If you think about all the underemployed or unemployed Americans in this country who cannot connect to a job in this economy, which is unforgiving of those students who don’t have a credential, the biggest barrier for them is this algebra requirement. It’s what has kept them from achieving a credential.”

Currently, the graduation rate at California Community Colleges is just 48 percent. According to NPR, this includes the number of students who either graduate with an associate's degree and those who transfer to a four-year college within six years of starting at CCC.

Oakley didn't dispute the dismal graduation rate, and further disputed that he is taking the "easy way out" by simply dropping the requirement.

"[N]othing could be farther from the truth," Oakley insisted.

"[S]ince the 1950s, we decided that the only measure of a student's ability to reason or to do some sort of quantitative measure is algebra. What we're saying is we want as rigorous a course as possible to determine a student's ability to succeed, but it should be relevant to their course of study. There are other math courses that we could introduce that tell us a lot more about our students," Oakley said.

Oakley suggested there are other courses that could teach students the same, underlying principle of reasoning, for which algebra is intended.

"There's an argument to be made that much of what we ask students to learn prepares them to be just better human beings, allows them to have reasoning skills," Oakley said. "But again, the question becomes: What data do we have that suggests algebra is that course?"

One example of a course that could replace algebra, Oakley said, is statistics.

"[I]f you think about it, you think about the use of statistics not only for a social science major but for every U.S. citizen," Oakley said. "This is a skill that we should have all of our students have with them because this affects them in their daily life."

Oakley cited research by the University of Texas, as well as the Carnegie Foundation, to make his point.

Researchers at Michigan State University also conducted research regarding what it says is a "widening" gap in how well low-income students understand math and how well high-income students understand it.

According to the American Educational Research Association, which cited the 2012 study, the research "confirmed not only that low-income students are more likely to be exposed to weaker math content in schools, but also that a substantial share of the gap in math performance between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students is related to those curricular inequalities."

“Our findings support previous research by showing that affluent students are consistently provided with greater opportunity to learn more rigorous content, and that students who are exposed to higher-level math have a better ability to apply it to addressing real-world situations of contemporary adult life, such as calculating interest, discounts and estimating the required amount of carpeting for a room,” William Schmidt, one of the authors of the Michigan State University study, said, according to a September 2015 AERA press release.

“But now we know just how important content inequality is in contributing to performance gaps between privileged and underprivileged students," Schmidt added.

Pierce College and College of the Canyons, both located in Southern California, are just two colleges that have experimented with dropping algebra as a requirement. So, too, have at least five other colleges in California: American River College, Mt. San Antonio College, Diablo Valley College, Foothill College and San Diego City College, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Not all colleges, however, are so eager to cut algebra courses from their core curriculum. The University of California system, for example, said the alternative just isn't rigorous enough. George Johnson, a University of California mechanical engineering professor, told the Los Angeles Times in 2014 that "the faculty at UC are interested in alternative pathways, but, so far, [it] has not reached the level of quality we expect."

(H/T: Daily Caller)

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