College-Level Math: Moving Too Fast?

Post reporter Valerie Strauss visited a Complex Variables class at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology for a story about the growing number of students who are taking college-level math before college.

She wrote in yesterday's Post:

Although educators and employers worry that not enough students have a good grasp of complex math, more kids are taking tough courses. In Fairfax, 12 of 25 high schools teach Multivariable Calculus in the fall and Matrix Algebra (usually called Linear Algebra in college) in the spring.

The College Board reported that thousands of Class of 2007 students in Maryland, Virginia and the District took Advanced Placement tests in Calculus AB, Calculus BC and Statistics.

As the ceiling of high school math offerings lifts, there may be a backlash stirring as college and high school educators notice that many students aren't ready.

Emily Messner wrote in the Washington Post magazine this summer about a math teacher at Montgomery Blair High School who had to create an Algebra II class on the fly becuase he found his fast-tracked students, who were expected to skip the class, were operating at a deficit.

The University of Maryland's chancellor WIlliam E. Kirwan echoed these concerns in a recent interview. Students are coming to college with more and more impressive looking transcripts, he said, "but huge gaps in fundamental knowledge of mathematics." As a result, the failure rate in college-level math classes is "shockingly high," he said.

Rather than looking at the "prestige of what the degree says...We would much rather see students who have had a real grouding in Algebra II and pre-calculus and trigonometry and geometry and who really master these subjects," he said.

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  October 14, 2008; 8:00 AM ET  | Category:  Math Resources
Previous: Where's the Algebra? | Next: Parents: How much math homework do you do?


Instead of complaining that college and high school mathematics have advanced too quickly, why not advance lower level math to keep up? Start algebra in elementary school. Unfortunately, the problem here is that the typical elementary school teacher who should start teaching algebra doesn't have a sufficient math background. The solution: start requiring more of our elementary education majors than a low level math class, and expect more from our students.

Posted by: jeffgopack | October 14, 2008 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Have you seen a modern math book these days? The math books themselves actually focus more on global warming and “fairness” than on math. I’m not joking. And to top this off, school systems buy new math books every year so that they “stay current.” It isn’t the math that is changing; it’s the social commentary in the text books. And in turn, every year, there is less and less math to be taught.

But don’t expect new text books to be the answer. We need to replace all these “educators” with people who actually want children to learn.

The poor math performance in our schools is because our school systems are run by people who do not want out children really educated. They spend too much time teaching from a socialist viewpoint and focus on indoctrinating young minds to their liberal and socialist views to concentrate on any real learning.

Get the liberals (socialists) out of our education system and we will see some gains. Keep them in and we’ll just spend more money on even worse performance. We’ve tried everything else.

Posted by: SlideRule | October 14, 2008 9:08 AM | Report abuse

I agree that many teachers that are "teaching" AP classes in high school are not qualified. My grandson in Calvert County had to help the teacher in his senior year teach the class, he knew Calculus better than she did!

Posted by: budpytko | October 14, 2008 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Sliderule, you are an ignoramus.

Idiots like you who complain about socialist bugaboos hiding everywhere trying to stymie the education of our children, are the same ones who don't want to pay taxes which fund our social infrastructure. I hope you aren't a teacher or have kids for that matter. Public school IS a socialist institution or is that fact lost on your genius? Schools and other publicly funded institutions are hurting because of selfish, short-sighted whiners like you. Give us all a break with your libertarian or conservative or whatever the hell you want to call it, righteousness. We've seen what the end results of people who think like you have done to our nation's infrastructure.

Posted by: sharkcellar | October 14, 2008 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Sliderule, that is a rather silly comment. I teach math and I assure you that math texts have math in them. I have no idea where your perception of text books with no content came from. The primary issue now is that math curriculums have been "backward engineered" from college standards. A third grade text book includes multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, geometry, problem solving and introductory algebraic concepts. Some children can handle it, but many are lost. In an effort to get to a desired point, we are compacting the information into younger and younger children and many of them get confused and fall behind.

Posted by: theharangue | October 14, 2008 9:48 AM | Report abuse

I think it is about time. I know 3 kids in my neighborhood that attend special class 9 grade math even though they are in 7th graders. Math standards are to be compared to other developed countries and needs a revamp otherwise in the global competition we will loose in a big way.

Posted by: sasidhargv | October 14, 2008 9:52 AM | Report abuse

There's a good reason that algebraic concepts aren't taught in grammar schools. Kids don't really have the capacity for abstract thought until their early teenage years.

Posted by: canoeguy1 | October 14, 2008 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Having been through the public school systen in the 70"s when the "new math" was taught, some of the things sliderule says resonate with me...I became an engineer in spite of the came down to dedicated, inspitring teachers who revealed that the tools of math and the scientific method opens a world where you can design your environemtn and future...

Unfortunately, way too many teachers are products of a system that is way too busy pushing many agendas. The only one that matters is inspiring children to engage with their environment on some social or technical level. My mother was an english teacher and she came from a era when the "education" degree was created by education admnistrators, and it was universally looked down upon by all serious academics. I am sure there are many qualified teachers out there...but frankly...the best were those with degrees in the their subject, like chemistry, math, physics, history, english, etc...and had "taken a break from industry" to teach. These folks were the spark of reality that got me into electrical engineering and off to a successful career. I am strongly in favor of a complete overhaul of our educational system requirements for teahers and curriculum. This will not sit well with teachers who are mainly teaching social and coping skills...with a little subject matter spinkled in...which are important...but do not teach you how to solve the kins of complex technical problems our world, environment, and economic system require.

Posted by: jprogers100 | October 14, 2008 10:11 AM | Report abuse

I teach high school math in California. It is very true the pressure to give artificially high progress reports because the parents will complain about you otherwise. The issue is not math but the letter grade itself. Want to be thought of as a great teacher? Give lots of A grades. No parent wants their child in prealgebra as it somehow targets them as being in the back of the bus (think Rosa Parks). So we populate algebra 1 with arithmetic deficient kids. Now, with no child left behind, we have to teach at arithmetic level so the kids do not get F grades. But we say we teach the core material because we get dinged by the Principal otherwise. The solutions are impossible to implement; we need to have districts grade tests done only online. We need to be able to issue grades that accurately reflect skill levels. We need to have systemic teaching with defined pacing. Parents need to accept their child may not being going to to MIT or CalTech anytime soon. And we need to reward (think bonus) for superior independent results by teachers just like anyone in business who does more than the average. And, lastly, we need to get rid of the focus on social rewards instead of pay for performance by individual students with true grading. But when schools give 4 point averages because it helps the student self esteem rather than true test perfromance, our whole country suffers. We can never get the lead position when we consider ourself a member of the pack. It would be a true delight to see school districts and schools within districts shut down on a competitive basis. And get rid of administrators that can't get the job done. Instead of hiring coaches and social studies teachers to be adminstrators, put math teachers and science teachers with degrees in technical fields in charge instead. We have so many poor adminstrators I cannot believe the DOE continues to exist. I wouldn't keep 25% of the ones I have known and would say the same about superintendents. Politicians first, educators second. Thanks for reading (too long) post!

Posted by: uk1981 | October 14, 2008 10:14 AM | Report abuse

One of the reasons that we made the sacrifices to put our kids in private schools was the quality of education.

My oldest son, aced the AP's in calculus and physics. Now has a A in Calc II at one of the most difficult engineering schools in the world.

The public schools here just don't cut it. It's not just the phenomenal beaurocracy, it's the other students who aren't as motivated as my son's friends.

I just want every parent to be able to make the same choice that Obama, Clinton and Gore made, to send their children to a school of their own choosing.

Get the politicians out of education and give us a choice where to educate OUR children.

Posted by: senojjones | October 14, 2008 10:14 AM | Report abuse

In Russia average children are learning calculus in middle school. In America we say the word calculus as though the definition was "hard, daunting, for adults only." Yet math is nothing more than a language and we know from educational research that learning languages and other conceptual skills is easiest when one is young.

So rather than ask if we are going too far, we should ask how far can we go? How can we teach advanced math without making it daunting and mysterious?

The contextual answer is to avoid teaching it as theoretical constructs. Focus on making it applied. Don't even tell them they are learning calculus, just tell them you want to know how fast two race cars can stop and so you need to know what happens when you apply the brakes in various ways, slamming then on, gradual increase, steady, and so on. Then when you tell them that they have just learned derivatives and rates they will say, no biggie teach.

And the commentor who questioned the "new book every year" problem is correct. Math does not change so much. Once we get a good set of applied math books, stop letting business push us around and use the same books over and over.

Posted by: limejunction | October 14, 2008 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Don't college entrance exams take care of any math skill doubts that the schools may have for future students?

On a personal note:
I took college algebra and failed the first time in a normal class (sink or swim was the notion). Next time around I took the self-paced version and I aced it. What do I need a full time instructor for?

Posted by: agnosticsurf | October 14, 2008 10:22 AM | Report abuse

It warms my heart to hear from dedicated teachers like uk1981. Industry can not hire qualified people..speak directly to them...THEY ARE LSITENING and watching.
We know your problem is the administration and the "no child left behind" mentality.
If we don't fix it soon there will be corporate/private schools a la the soviet "start from the cradle" method. Maybe we should consider a "draft" where degreed professionals must teach for 3 years before they enter industry...something novel must be tried. Pay for performance is good but too often the results are "cooked" to make everyone feel better. None of this improves our nation and way of life.

Posted by: jprogers100 | October 14, 2008 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I actually went to the Montgomery Blair Magnet and I have to say that the program prepared me well for college. I APed out of Calc I and II and took Calc III my first semester of College and did fine. My husband, who also went to the Blair magnet, took Calc III in high school, and was able to score almost perfects on every test when he had to take Calc III over in college because there was no AP Calc III exam he can take to skip the class. I feel that kids can learn a lot more than educators realise. If I had the opportunity to learn more during my elementary school years, I would have excelled even more.

Posted by: deannazhang | October 14, 2008 10:45 AM | Report abuse

When I was in third grade, I tested well enough to be placed into an accelerated 'Honors Program' for fourth grade and beyond. What they didn't tell the parents was that the math section actually *skipped* an entire year of learning, instead of compressing fourth and fifth grade programs into one year. Skipping fourth grade math left me with a deficit in my education that was never filled in the classroom, and I slowly fell behind. By the time I was in my Freshman year in HS, I was in an Honors math class and failing. Thankfully, I had a good adviser at school, and she recommended I take the same class again, on a 'regular' level for my next year, and supplement it with a tutoring program. I spent well over a year re-learning basic math and slowly getting up to speed. It took a while, but constant practice helped - I aced Calculus my freshman year in college.

However, now I'm faced with taking the GRE, and I haven't done much more than simple addition in eight years. Those gaping holes from earlier in life are blaring again, and I'm concerned about being able to pass the test. The program I'm applying to contains almost no math - to get denied because I can't solve an equation is a devastating thought.

Early reinforcement and education is much more important than showing a college you can solve calculus equations at 16. Building a strong foundation will keep others from going through the same things I have, and will in turn strengthen our future generations in their college and career endeavors.

Posted by: erincarly | October 14, 2008 11:03 AM | Report abuse

To canoeguy1, your comment "Kids don't really have the capacity for abstract thought until their early teenage years” is not entirely accurate. Mathematical ability is an early developing skill. Mathematicians generally have completed their best work in their 20’s. Philosophers peak much later, in their 50’s. For those few truly gifted math students in a school, an individualized accelerated program should be available. (All work should be done in the classroom so that mommy, daddy and/or tutor can be separated, revealing the true ability of the child.) Our level playing field is a hindrance to the truly gifted in Mathematics and Physics. As long as we insist on a level playing field there is no reason for schools to hire someone to teach the few able ones.

Posted by: georgemom | October 14, 2008 11:08 AM | Report abuse

One problem is that we teach math in large groups and in standardized classes. There is a wide spread in the rate that kids pick up math concepts and skills (and there are a vast number of interdependent concepts and skills required to "master" the subjects). For math and science we may need to go to a more individualized approach at teaching and get away from fixed class groupings. We may need an approach that comes closer to individual development programs and micro-grading based on specific skills and concepts mastered. Maybe these should be done pass-fail. This begs for some type of computerized program to track progress and diagnose challenges faced by individual students. Tutors would get involved for recalcitrant problems.

We can do better than we have been doing.

Posted by: jeffclark1 | October 14, 2008 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I believe georgemom has hit the nail on the head. Schools do very little to differentiate math. I only became ware of this because my son is gifted in math.

There has been differentiation in teaching reading for decades. It is now normal to group children based on there reading level. But in Math, children are all taught at the same (low) level. If children were grouped into different levels within the classroom, just like in reading, then the less apt children would do better, and the more capable children would be allowed to excel. Math is still taught like it was the turn of the century, and every child is learning from the same hornbook.

Posted by: jsmarg | October 14, 2008 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Pointing out the liberal/socialist influence in our education system always seems to bring out the vitriol from those of the like-minded left. It is a sure sign that I’ve hit the mark. Personal attacks are not the way to win an argument, unless you are in kindergarten, fact are what’s important.

The problem with modern math text books is much more pervasive than I’ve briefly explained. Among my hobbies is collecting old mathematics text books. Compare a high-school or college textbook from the 1950s or earlier to today and you would be amazed. For one, the older textbooks are designed to actually teach the subject. What was considered high-school calc is now 1 or 2 years of college calc. Geometry and Trig are mere afterthoughts in today’s schools yet are major studies in themselves. Older text books were almost stand-alone texts. They had real substance. Today’s textbooks are filled with pictures and graphics that have nothing to do with the subject. Even high school books contain cartoon characters and other silliness.

But the most damaging aspect of our modern text books is political correctness and the pervasive liberal think of dumbing down our modern education. First you have the demise of the “word problem.” These were designed to have the student consider real-world application of a problem. To challenge them to think with concepts, to figure out not only the answer but how to see the problem(s) to be solved. In a word, this was getting students to “think.” If a modern text even has any word or application problems, text book writers are more concerned with making sure that all sexes are represented equally and that names like Mohammad and Jose are also included. Christian and American holidays like the 4th of July cannot be mentioned. But the real damage is the idea that a student must not be given any problem that is too complex or contain more than one easy to find component. In a nutshell, the problems have been rendered impotent.

The result is that students are prevented from grasping key concepts and the complete meanings. Add in a teaching system that is more interested is assigning blame for their failings and you have a real problem.

It’s virtually a mantra that “No Child Left Behind” is always to blame. But guess what? There have been problems with our education system and specifically with math comprehension in our schools long before NCLB was created.

Go to TJ and ask any Calc student to define logarithms and how they are used. See if they can show you how they are used and why. I bet you will just get a blank stare.

Posted by: SlideRule | October 14, 2008 8:11 PM | Report abuse

A quick glance at the Jefferson High math Web site provides a clue as to why students taking these tough classes come out ill-prepared.

"Extensive use of graphing calculators and computers is included throughout the basic sequence of courses."

Imagine seeing the statement "Extensive use of books on tape and DVDs is included throughout the basic sequence of English literature courses." Would anybody be confused as to why the students couldn't analyze literature very well?

Posted by: BradJolly | October 14, 2008 11:44 PM | Report abuse

I just came across mention of this blog elsewhere. I found this entry entertaining, as I took a Complex Variables Class from Dr. Kirwan @ UMD while getting my EE degree there. He was a pretty good teacher.


Posted by: davidbengtson | October 16, 2008 9:10 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company