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Colleges created remedial education classes to ensure students were sufficiently prepared for more advanced material. But increasingly, there’s a sense that remedial courses are hurting the prospects of the students they are intended to help. As a result, some California colleges and high schools are rethinking their approach to teaching math -- with encouraging results. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
Colleges created remedial education classes to help make sure struggling students were ready for higher-level classes. Many students still take those courses. But, increasingly, there's a sense that classes like remedial math are hurting the prospects of the very students schools want to help.
Only a third of students who are placed in those courses go on to graduate or to complete higher-level math. The numbers are even worse for students of color.
Hari Sreenivasan has a report for our special Rethinking College series. It's part of our regular Making the Grade segment.
For thousands of college students, like Jose Ceballos, this isn't just a math class. This is a way around a major roadblock to a college degree.
I feel like my whole perception on math, like, just changed.
For decades, Ceballos and others who did poorly in math weren't allowed to enroll in courses like these that count toward a bachelor's degree. Instead, they were placed in low-level remedial courses.
I hated it. I was like, I don't want to do this.
Victoria Dominguez is Ceballos' professor.
I would see them just retaking the classes over and over, the same class.
In 2016, a study by the California Public Policy Institute found that only one in four students enrolled in remedial math classes were passing. The very courses that were designed to get students college-ready had become barriers to a four-year degree.
I took it six times, and I couldn't pass it.
The passing rate for minority students like Reina Schmitz was particularly troubling. One study showed only 2 percent of Latino students and 1 percent of African-American students in low-level remedial classes passed college math two years after enrolling.
They give up. They get discouraged.
Those remedial courses often were a trap.
Christopher Edley is the president of The Opportunity Institute.
People would take them once, twice, three times, still not succeeding, and they'd use up their financial aid eligibility, they'd get discouraged, they'd end up dropping out, and never complete college.
There's no question that math stops tens of thousands of students who would otherwise do fine in college from getting to the goal line.
Hoping to stop students from dropping out of college, California legislators passed a new law that requires community colleges to offer alternatives to remedial classes, like the statistics class Jose Ceballos' attends at Citrus College.
What's the difference now that you're doing?
So, what we're doing now is, we added an extra two units to the class. It is extra time. Whatever algebra skills they need to be successful in statistics, they get it right when we are teaching the statistics concepts.
Dominguez also asks students to set goals, reflect on their behavior, and help each other.
How will you change your behavior?
Just positive thinking, not giving up when you fail.
When we're learning something new, and instead of like raising my hand and be like, oh, I don't understand, I just like continue to keep going , making myself more lost. So, instead of doing that, I should go to tutoring and ask questions.
Some parts of it almost seem like a bit of group therapy, when you're trying to deal with their phobias of math.
Exactly right, because they have a lot of common issues. And the more they can talk to each other, they're going to be the best teachers to help them get over those difficult humps in the class.
The intense scrutiny of remedial math in California colleges has led some high schools to rethink their math curriculum.
I want you guys to come up with at least two statistical questions with more than one variable.
At Leuzinger High School, just outside of Los Angeles, Daniel Gavrilovic teaches an alternative math class called Introduction to Data Science, or IDS.
This class was to say, hey, let's look at math from a different perspective, create a new pathway for our students who may have historically struggled with math.
Students use engaging data, often surveys about teenagers, to solve problems that also tell a story.
Are vegetarians more likely to drink water rather than juice?
Ah. Are vegetarians more likely to drink water than juice?
You want to filter out…
Oh, vegetarians and the beverage.
And the beverage, OK.
Algebra and geometry are folded into the story line.
What we see in traditional math, you know, draw X and Y, Y equals M, draw — what's the slope, what is the intercept of the Y-axis, right?
So they have a visual for the function. Now, in this class is, you're doing the same thing, but now that data visualization actually has a story behind it. There's meaning behind the visuals.
With the story, we can actually come up with things that we're interested in. So, you put your life into math, and make it better.
IDS was created by the California Math Project at UCLA. The course satisfies college expectations for algebra.
Kyndall Brown is the executive director.
If a student takes IDS and is successful, you will get credit for passing algebra one and algebra two. And algebra two is a big stumbling block for a lot of students.
I hated algebra two. Like, it was the worst class ever to me.
Christopher Edley says algebra two is more than a stumbling block. He says the subject has become a civil rights issue.
Here's the civil rights principle. If you have a policy that affects one group in a far different way, more burdens, more obstacles than other groups, then you need to have a justification for choosing that policy.
The arbitrariness of imposing an algebra two hurdle is disproportionately painful to poor kids and to minority kids, the kids who are less likely to have had effective math instruction.
Edley, the former dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law, who got his undergraduate degree in mathematics, says colleges should reassess math requirements for students who do not plan to major in the STEM fields.
They're not really based on evidence. It's really an agreement about what it means to be an educated person. And a century ago, it was Greek and Latin. Today, it's apparently the quadratic formula.
I appreciate the importance of math more than most, I believe, but I also appreciate the importance of opportunity.
Not all educators want to do away with algebra two requirements.
Algebra two is pretty abstract, but I'm a little bit leery of just kind of eliminating it. And I just think we need to really think about who needs it, how it's being taught, how do we expose students to the content, regardless of what class they take.
As for Citrus College, the number of students passing college credit math has doubled with the new classroom format, and Jose Ceballos is in the top of his class.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in California.
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Hari Sreenivasan joined the PBS NewsHour in 2009. He is the Anchor of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Senior Correspondent for the nightly program.
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