Los Angeles Times, Monday, March 15, 1999, [Home Edition], p. 1 (Section A)
Column one headline
Math equals fear at 2-year colleges
For many students, the subject is a nemesis that blocks them from a career or transfer to a university
Teachers struggel to provide help
By Jill Leovy, Times Staff Writer
Allis Snyder-Crabb's life plans are stalled in intermediate algebra. The Glendale College student has dropped classes, repeated them, lost time and money, and still hasn't put algebra behind her.
"I've been in tears, I'm not kidding. I've broken dishes over mathematics," said Snyder-Crabb, an aspiring English teacher. "I see it as standing in the way of my academic success, my career - everything I wish to accomplish. I'm 30, and I want to move on with my life, and math is blocking my way."
Snyder-Crabb is part of what Glendale College math instructor Peter Stathis calls the math "bottleneck" in California community colleges.
Of all academic subjects, math is the biggest barrier to student advancement. It is the subject with the lowest student success rates and highest "drop" rates--the subject most feared and most postponed by students.
"I would have a two-year degree in business administration right now but for math," said Sam Shabot, who is struggling through beginning algebra at West L.A. College. Shabot has repeated courses and even switched schools in his desperation to complete the course. "Math is killing me," he said.
State community colleges, home to 75% of post-secondary students, claim a diverse student population that includes a share of university-qualified students and math whizzes. But above all, community colleges are the domain of the C student, the immigrant and the late bloomer.
They come seeking a leg up the social ladder, or a second chance at universities, only to hit a wall in a lowly algebra course.
Standardized tests for years have revealed the low level of math achievement in U.S. schoolchildren. But it is in community colleges that the human cost is visible in tears of frustration, wasted time and deferred careers.
Students who can't get past community college math classes--and about 47% don't the first time - are not just weeded out from medicine or science. They are held back from entering universities, and from such relatively modest careers as preschool teachers, office administrators, art teachers and counselors.
"They are trying so hard, but nothing makes any sense," said West L.A. College math instructor Mary J. McMaster. "I feel like I'm teaching in a foreign language."
The bottleneck is forcing many colleges to reassess math offerings. Several have added slower or learn-at-your-own pace courses, tutoring and math labs to help students study.
Instructors drill 23-year-olds in how to add and subtract fractions, multiply decimals and combine negative numbers. They lecture students on how to study and even teach classes in conquering math anxiety.
Sid Kolpas, a Glendale College instructor, teaches such a class. The sessions are draining because they "are like psychotherapy sessions," he said. "I hear so many tears and horror stories. After I teach it, I want to crawl in a corner somewhere."
Students complain about exams and throw tantrums during office hours. Counselors face a parade of would-be transfer students with the same problem - they've taken every class they need except math. Instructors resist pressure to dumb down their classes, as aggravated students blame math for holding them back.
Reina Arriega, 36, started to cry as she explained how she failed her first attempt at arithmetic at East L.A. College. "I was devastated," she said. "They said no counting on fingers, no using calculators. I had to drop the class."
The Cal State system, in response to low math scores, recently tightened entrance restrictions, forcing transfer students to complete their math requirements before moving to the university level.
Because community colleges must take essentially all comers, they face a more profound educational gap than Cal State. Only 4% of Los Angeles Community College District students test at college levels in math on placement exams; that is, above the level of intermediate algebra.
Of the remainder, 42% are deemed ready for intermediate algebra classes, and 54% deemed ready only for beginning algebra or below. "It's a massive problem," said Stathis, math division chairman at Glendale College.
Placing the Blame
Experts offer a variety of explanations for the problem: increasing math requirements at college levels, poor study skills among students, an erosion of the depth of math instruction. Most also agree that math is intrinsically hard, and a subject that seems to fade especially rapidly from people's memories.
But other researchers and teachers put the blame squarely on K-12 schools for allowing large numbers of students to graduate - the vast middle - with insufficient math preparation.
"If I knew it was going to be like this, I would have taken high school more seriously," said Patricia Duenas, a South Gate High School graduate studying at East L.A. College.
Duenas, 20, wants to be an elementary school teacher. But in the course of getting her associate degree, she failed algebra, a subject she had taken in high school. She took the college course, got a C, took the next course in the series - the last she needed to transfer - dropped that class and is now taking it again. All told, math has cost her four extra semesters of classes. San Francisco State professor Dan Fendel blames the state's "very severe tracking system," which labels schoolchildren as gifted or not, college-bound or not. In the end, many kids relegated to lower rungs progress through grades without learning critical lessons.
Shabot, the West L.A. College student stalled in algebra, said in high school he was categorized as, "a low-track person" and was placed in remedial classes where he learned no algebra. "I was definitely a beneficiary of social promotion," he said. "But I am suffering now."
Algebra is required for an associate degree and some vocational certificates at most community colleges. One course above intermediate algebra is required to transfer to many four-year schools. Students must receive a grade of C or better in classes.
Don Miller, a student at Glendale Community College, is one of many who want to transfer to a university but can't because of the new policy that he complete his math requirements.
Math has blocked his way before: Thirteen years ago, it drove him from Pasadena Community College.
"I gave up on math before because I wasn't winning, and I'm not winning yet," said Miller, 32.
Miller said he received virtually no algebra instruction in high school. "It's to the point of frustration ..." he said, trailing off. "It's like, what can I do?"
After years of working in customer service at banks, Miller is seeking a bachelor's degree in psychology to fulfill his dream of becoming a counselor for teenage runaways. But because he is not passing elementary algebra, the job he seeks may be out of reach.
The state has taken some steps to improve its math instruction in K-12, said Doug Stone, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
In 1997, the board passed new standards for algebra and more advanced math courses, and spelled out the skills students should acquire by the seventh grade. The controversial standards, which emphasize basic computation and correct answers, was seen as a departure from a decade-old trend toward teaching math concepts and using games to make the subject more accessible to students.
Proposals for high school exit exams may also help boost math proficiency, Stone said. But efforts to require algebra and geometry as a condition of graduation throughout the state have so far failed.
One obstacle to improving math instruction in high schools is the shortage of qualified teachers: More than a quarter of high school math classes are taught by teachers who are not credentialed in the subject.
Students have a good chance of making up for lost time if they put in the time and colleges develop programs to help them get through, Stathis said. In the community colleges, instructors are well qualified to teach math, and unlike their counterparts at universities, can devote time to teaching without publishing pressures.
Glendale instructors meet weekly to discuss the issue, and have seen success rates improve by about 5% in recent years. The college is also trying to start a new program to discourage students from putting off their math requirements.
Sometimes, the biggest difference is simply connecting with the right teacher.
Arriega, the East L.A. student who couldn't do arithmetic, credits one instructor, Rahim Faradineh, with helping her get through the class on a second try. Snyder-Crabb, the would-be English teacher, said Glendale's Kolpas helped her control her fears. But she is still worried about passing the two additional classes she needs to transfer to a university.
Shabot has half a dozen math classes still ahead of him for the bachelor's degree in real estate and land-use planning that he hopes to earn. But the remaining classes loom before him like a daunting mountain of math.
"I mean this stuff--it's ninth grade!" he said, gesturing toward his open math book during a study session. The page is covered with problems to solve for X. "If I had learned what I was supposed to, I wouldn't have this problem now."
Success rates in math are the lowest among eight of the largest disciplines at community colleges. Only 52.3% of students in fall of 1997 completed math courses with a grade of C or better.* ---------- *Successful Course Completion in Credit Classes Source: California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office, January 1999
*********************************************** * Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org