(MCT) — Unlike a lot of people her age, 20-year-old Kelsey Pearsall-Brandon of Lake in the Hills has a clear career goal. She wants to be a police officer. But something is standing in her way:
-24 = 5x + 1 < 6
That was a problem put to her recently in a remedial algebra class at Elgin Community College. The class cost more than $400, and she must pass it to earn a degree that could boost her job prospects.
Does she think she'll use algebra as a cop? "Not really," she said. "I gotta catch the criminal. ... I'm not going to be finding X."
That sounds like the timeworn complaint of many a struggling undergrad. But with more than half of American college students enrolled in remedial classes, which consume more than $3 billion in yearly tuition and government support yet rarely lead to graduation, experts are starting to take it seriously.
Math, the subject that most often holds students back, is coming under heaviest scrutiny. Some researchers and teachers are calling for a fundamental redesign of the subject in community college, saying algebra-heavy requirements are often irrelevant to students' career plans, while the statistics and quantitative reasoning they do need go untaught.
This disconnect, they say, leaves many students trapped, forced to spend money on classes that don't count toward degrees and greatly increasing the odds that they will drop out.
"(Remedial) mathematics is the graveyard," said Anthony Bryk of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "This is where aspirations go to die. If you can't get through this, you can't go on to career opportunities."
That has led some Illinois community colleges to experiment with a new model that takes a real-world approach, giving students a chance to speed through remedial math by tackling practical problems instead of theoretical ones.
It's known as "math literacy," and it's designed to help students build the skills they'll need to succeed in nontechnical careers, while speeding past the skills they'll likely never use.
"We're not saying, 'Let's reduce standards.' We're saying, 'Let's change the way we teach (them),' " said Kathy Almy, a professor at Rockford's Rock Valley College who has written a math literacy textbook. Illinois students must take only three years of high school math, and many skip the subject their senior year. That rust shows up when they take college placement tests and are sent to the remedial level.
The lowest scorers start with basic arithmetic and must work through intermediate algebra, a sequence that can require three or more classes. None counts toward graduation.
Experts say the expense and frustration often leads students to abandon school: Complete College America, a nonprofit that advocates for changes in the remediation system, says that only 14 percent of Illinois community college students who take remedial classes graduate in three years.
Chicago-area colleges have responded by coming up with new ways to help students navigate algebra, ranging from pre-placement refresher courses to in-class tutoring and computerized "modules" that home in on weak areas.
But the math itself is usually the same as it has always been.
"I took all this in high school," said Rebeka Sendroiu, an aspiring ultrasound technician from Lincolnwood who was working on algebra word problems at Oakton Community College. "I don't think I should be taking it again, but it's a requirement."
That's what the math literacy movement aims to address. The idea, based on research by the Carnegie Foundation and the American Mathematical Association of Two Year Colleges, took shape about four years ago, with Almy and her colleague Heather Foes taking the lead in Illinois.
Traditional math classes begin with theory and proceed to problems, but Almy and Foes designed a one-semester course that works in reverse: Teachers give students real-world questions — figuring out how an Internet video goes viral, for example, or evaluating a scientific claim about global warming — and then show them how to use math to find the answers.
Almy said students who struggle with math respond to practicality. Consider a problem her class took up: You go to a restaurant's 25-cent wing night with a $20 bill. After buying a $5 pitcher of beer, how many wings can you get?
The class had no trouble with that answer — 60 — but the problem grew steadily more difficult as Almy added factors like side dishes, tax and tip, eventually spawning an equation with parentheses, brackets and decimals.
"Would algebra make it easier?" Almy asked. "If it does, try it."
Verenice Sandoval, 18, a business major who aspires to open her own photography studio, said she appreciated the class's method.
"What's different about this course is that it applies more to real life, so we're doing a lot more with something we'll actually use compared to algebra class in high school, where we're just working with formulas," she said. "In some situations it's really helpful because it seems more understandable."
Almy said the course allows students to complete their remedial math requirement in one semester, rather than two or three. Its overall passing rate of roughly 65 percent is about the same as other remedial math classes at the college, though there are no good data yet to indicate whether students who take it are more likely to get their degrees.
The City Colleges of Chicago, where 88 percent of students test into remedial math, are trying out math literacy classes at two campuses, but most area community colleges have yet to use the approach.
Some professors doubt it will be a cure-all, noting that many students come in with profound weaknesses in basic arithmetic and even reading. And the class won't be enough for those with majors in science or technology.
Oakton math teacher Nancy Ressler said that students reduce their options by skipping the traditional math pathway.
"Taking time to achieve the solution, thinking and rethinking — those are fine traits," she said via email. "A refined mind is respected. It doesn't lose value as will the most expensive (gadget)."
But math literacy appears bound to catch on — "Eventually we'll have most if not all colleges doing this," said Brian Durham of the Illinois Community College Board — and Almy said she hoped the proliferation will inject a note of realism.
Traditional math education, she said, "treats all students like they want to become doctors. Well, not everyone's going to be a doctor."
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