It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you’re not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?

That’s the argument Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, made today in an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel.

At American community colleges, 60 percent of those enrolled are required to take at least one math course. Most — nearly 80 percent — never complete that requirement.

Oakley is among a growing number of educators who view intermediate algebra as an obstacle to students obtaining their credentials — particularly in fields that require no higher level math skills.

Their thinking has led to initiatives like Community College Pathways, which strays away from abstract algebra to engage students in real-world math applications.

What follows is an edited version of Siegel’s Q&A with Oakley.

**What are you proposing?**

What we’re proposing is to take an honest look at what our requirements are and why we even have them. So, for example, we have a number of courses of study and majors that do not require algebra. We want to take a look at other math pathways, look at the research that’s been done across the country and consider math pathways that are actually relevant to the coursework that the student is pursuing.

**You are facing pressure to increase graduation rates — only 48 percent graduate from California community colleges with an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year institution within six years. As we’ve said, passing college algebra is a major barrier to graduation. But is this the easy way out? Just strike the algebra requirement to increase graduation rates instead of teaching math more effectively?**

I hear that a lot and unfortunately nothing could be farther from the truth. Somewhere along the lines, since 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.

**Do you buy the argument that there are just some forms of reasoning — whether it’s graphing functions or solving quadratic equations that involve a mental discipline — that may never be actually used literally on the job, but may improve the way young people think?**

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. But again, the question becomes: What data do we have that suggests algebra is that course? Are there other ways that we can introduce reasoning skills that more directly relate to what a student’s experience in life is and really helps them in their program of study or career of choice?

**A lot of students in California community colleges are hoping to prepare for a four-year college. What are you hearing from the four-year institutions? Are they at ease with you dropping the requirement? Or would they then make the students take the same algebra course they’re not taking at community college?**

This question is being raised at all levels of higher education — the university level as well as the community college level. There’s a great body of research that’s informing this discussion, much of it coming from some of our top universities, like the Dana Center at the University of Texas, or the Carnegie Foundation. So there’s a lot of research behind this and I think more and more of our public and private university partners are delving into this question of what is the right level of math depending on which major a student is pursuing.

**And there are people writing about concepts of numeracy that may be different from what people have been teaching all this time. Do you have in mind a curriculum that would be more useful than intermediate algebra?**

We are piloting different math pathways within our community colleges. We’re working with our university partners at CSU and the UC, trying to ensure that we can align these courses to best prepare our students to succeed in majors. And if you think about it, you think about the use of statistics not only for a social science major but for every U.S. citizen. This is a skill that we should have all of our students have with them because this affects them in their daily life.

**Are you at all disappointed that the high schools who are sending students to California’s community colleges are not already teaching their students these algebra skills before they graduate?**

Certainly, these questions come up in K-12 education, but if we consider who really drives K-12 education — that is our four-year university system. By creating requirements, we ensure that K-12 has to align with those requirements. So as long as algebra is the defining math course, K-12 will have to teach it.

**Bob Moses , the civil rights activist, ****started the Algebra Project, teaching concepts of algebra to black students in the South. He ****saw the teaching of math as a continuation of the civil rights struggle. **

**Rates of failure in algebra are higher for minority groups than they are for white students. Why do you think that is? Do you think a different curriculum would have less disparate results by ethnic or racial group?**

First of all, we’ve seen in the data from many of the pilots across the country that are using alternative math pathways — that are just as rigorous as an algebra course — we’ve seen much greater success for students because many of these students can relate to these different kinds of math depending on which program of study they’re in. They can see how it works in their daily life and how it’s going to work in their career.

The second thing I’d say is yes, this is a civil rights issue, but this is also something that plagues all Americans — particularly low-income Americans. 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.

**Do you risk a negative form of tracking? Depriving a student of the possibility of saying in community college: “Wow, that quadratic equation is the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen. I think I’m going to do more stuff like this.”**

We’re certainly not saying that we’re going to commit students to lower levels of math or different kinds of math. What we’re saying is we want more students to have math skills that allow them to keep moving forward. We want to build bridges between the kinds of math pathways we’re talking about that will allow them to continue into STEM majors. We don’t want to limit students.

The last thing I’d say is that we are already tracking students. We are already relegating students to a life of below livable wage standards. So we’ve already done so, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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A functional MRI study of 17 people blind since birth found that areas of visual cortex became active when the participants were asked to solve algebra problems, a team from Johns Hopkins reports in the *Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences*.

“And as the equations get harder and harder, activity in these areas goes up in a blind person,” says Marina Bedny, an author of the study and an assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

In 19 sighted people doing the same problems, visual areas of the brain showed no increase in activity.

“That really suggests that yes, blind individuals appear to be doing math with their visual cortex,” Bedny says.

The findings, published online Friday, challenge the idea that brain tissue intended for one function is limited to tasks that are closely related.

“To see that this structure can be reused for something very different is very surprising,” says Melissa Libertus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. “It shows us how plastic our brain is, how flexible it is.”

Earlier research found that visual cortex could be rewired to process information from other senses, like hearing and touch. But Bedny wanted to know whether this area of the brain could do something radically different, something that had nothing to do with the senses.

So she picked algebra.

During the experiment, both blind and sighted participants were asked to solve algebra problems. “So they would hear something like: 12 minus 3 equals x, and 4 minus 2 equals x,” Bedny says. “And they’d have to say whether x had the same value in those two equations.”

In both blind and sighted people, two brain areas associated with number processing became active. But only blind participants had increased activity in areas usually reserved for vision.

The result suggests the brain can rewire visual cortex to do just about anything, Bedny says. And if that’s true, she says, it could lead to new treatments for people who’ve had a stroke or other injury that has damaged one part of the brain.

Drugs or even mental exercises might help a patient “use a different part of your brain to do the same function,” Bedny says. “And that would be really exciting.”

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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“They can assure themselves and don’t have to wait for the teacher to come around and say, ‘yeah, you got it.'” Saul said of the approach. She makes sure students have time to work independently before they share their strategies with one another, a time when they practice using math language and explaining their thinking. Meanwhile, Saul is rotating around the room, supporting students and pushing their thinking along. One of the most important parts, she says, is when she invites students to come to the front and share their solutions. This student-led solution time reinforces the class culture and helps students see one another as experts.

Algebra is another important area of math and is often seen as the gateway subject to higher math. While students may see algebra as a time to memorize equations, strong teachers know this is an incredibly important time to make sure students’ math reasoning is solid. In the video below, math coach Audra McPhillips explains how she leads eighth graders through the process of developing a conjecture about functions. She asks them to look for patterns and has intentionally given them three examples that have something in common (the rate of change) and a point of difference (the y-intercept), meant to push student thinking a little further.

McPhillips does very little telling students how to think, instead she lets them develop a conjecture that they believe to be true beyond the examples in front of them and requires them to explain why. Note, she doesn’t expect all students to write a conjecture by the end of the lesson, but she does have them fill out exit slips to record what they learned and how far they got as a quick reflection before they head to their next class.

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Education researchers are beginning to validate what many teachers have long known — connecting learning to student interests helps the information stick. This seems to work particularly well with math, a subject many students say they dislike because they can’t see its relevance to their lives.

“When I started spending time in classrooms I realized the math wasn’t being applied to the students’ world in a meaningful way,” said Candace Walkington, assistant professor in the department of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University. She conducted a year-long study on 141 ninth graders at a Pennsylvania high school to see whether tailoring questions to individual student interests could help students learn difficult and often abstract algebra concepts.

Researchers studied a classroom using Carnegie Learning software called Cognitive Tutor, a program that has been studied frequently. In the study, half of the students chose one of several categories that interested them — things like music, movies, sports, social media — and were given an algebra curriculum based on those topics. The other half received no interest-based personalization. All the problems had the same underlying structure and were meant to teach the same concept.

Walkington found that students who had received interest-based personalization mastered concepts faster. What’s more, in order to ensure that learning was robust, retained over time, and would accelerate future learning, she also looked at student performance in a later unit that had no interest-based personalization for any of the students. “Students that had previously received personalization, even though it was gone, were doing better on these more difficult problems as well,” said Walkington.

**[RELATED: Nine Tenents of Passion Based Learning]**

She also found that struggling students improved the most when their interests were taken into account. “We picked out the students who seemed to be struggling the most in Algebra I and we found that for this sub-group of students that were way behind the personalization was more effective,” Walkington said. Specifically, the study tested students’ ability to turn story problems into algebraic equations — what’s called algebraic expression writing.

“That’s one of the most challenging skills to teach students because it’s a very abstract skill,” Walkington said. She hypothesizes that the abstract nature of the concepts actually allowed students to more easily generalize and apply the same knowledge to a wide variety of situations and to more difficult problems in later units.

Walkington is working to expand her study to all the ninth graders in a school district of 9,000 students. “The bigger, you make it the harder it is to tap into the interests of students,” Walkington said. But she’s confident that there are some general-interest categories that many students share, like sports and movies.

**WITHOUT TECHNOLOGY**

But can this tactic help a teacher with a class of 30 students that doesn’t use this particular math software? Teachers in the studied school asked this question, so Walkington developed a practical guide for them to use. She chose to conduct the study using the Carnegie blended learning curriculum because it was easy to layer on the interest-based personalization to the existing program. It also provided her with a wealth of data about how students approached the problems. That said, a teacher could use interest-driven questions without any math software.

From her guide:

Two Examples of PersonalizationPersonalization can be accomplished on simple mathematics story problems. For example, a typical algebra problem might read: “A particular assembly line in an automobile company plant can produce thirteen cars every hour.” Based on this scenario, students might be asked to write an expression or solve for how many cars are produced after certain numbers of hours. Below are some examples of how this problem could be personalized:ShoppingThe website of your favorite clothing store, Hot Topic, sells thirteen superhero t-shirts every hour.:Computers: A recent video blog you posted about your life on YouTube gets thirteen hits every hour.Food:Your favorite restaurant “Steak ‘n Shake” sells thirteen caramel pretzel shakes every hour.Music:Pandora Internet radio plays thirteen of your favorite pop songs every hour.Cell Phones:On your new iPhone 5 you send your best friend thirteen texts every hour.While these problems involve relatively simple modifications, our research has shown that this type of personalization is effective for improving student learning.

**[RELATED: How the Power of Interest Drives Learning]**

Helping students see algebra in their daily lives is one way to apply this technique. In the same way, video games have point systems that allow players to level up after they’ve won a certain number of points. Students understand these systems intimately, but aren’t often asked to think about them through the lens of algebra. Similarly, students have a sense of how often they text and how their texting habits compare to others, but they aren’t often asked to express that relationship in an equation. Helping students to see the math in their own lives could get them thinking differently.

Another way teachers can personalize algebra would be to ask questions that are likely to appeal to student interests. Walkington found that students find story problems that deal with social issues of communicating with family and friends accessible. Concepts of work and business were less accessible, as were problems that dealt with physics concepts like motion, time, and space. Problems based on home references like pets were more interesting to students and garnered better results. Using these broad guidelines, teachers can try to write questions that appeal to more students.

Walkington has also experimented with having students personalize their own math instruction, writing, sharing and solving story problems in small groups. She’s found that even students with relatively little math knowledge can create complex story problems and express them with algebra if there’s interest in the topic. This is a great way to have students construct their own knowledge while applying it to their passions.

A great time to use this tactic is when introducing an abstract idea or foundational topic in algebra. That’s when educators will see the most benefit of grounding the topic in student interests, Walkington said. It’s important to elicit student interest in the math concepts, however, and not just the question’s topic. This intervention could work well with struggling students too.

“We have to layer the algebra onto those relationships that already exist,” Walkington said. “And that’s not an obvious thing because it doesn’t look anything like algebra at first. It just looks like a relationship.” She’s confident from her own experience of learning to love math that when students see its applicability to things they care about, they learn more easily and deeply.

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“Is this * the* device or is this the

– John Sipe, Jr. Senior Vice President, National Sales Manager, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, on the company’s year-long pilot program with the iPad algebra curriculum. I’ll be posting the interview in its entirety over the next couple of days.

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