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Gary Rubinstein’s Blog: Does Learning Math Make Students ‘College Ready’?

In New York City, students are considered ‘college ready’ if they can score an 80 on the Algebra regents.  Eighty is actually not a percentage, but a scaled score — a curve — that equates to something like 57% of the possible points.

We often hear about how the goal of education nowadays is for students to be college or career ‘ready,’ so I’ve been thinking about how Math, which I’ve taught for most of the past 23 years, fits into this, namely:  Does learning Math (or at least faking Math enough to get 57% on some standardized test) have any correlation with being ready to succeed in college?

In a rare moment of wishy-washiness, I’m going to say ‘no’ and then ‘maybe’ and then ‘no’ again.

‘No’ because as a Math teacher and a Math lover, I do think that the ‘importance’ of Math is overstated.  Like Music and Art, Mathematics is one of the most amazing creations (discoveries?) of mankind and, yes, there are aspects of it — even aspects of the horrible curriculum that has evolved in this country over the past 200 years — which truly expand the mind the way any great piece of Music or Art would.

But ‘No,’ it isn’t really that ‘important’ in the sense that people could get by in life very well with only knowing up to around 5th grade Math.  Come on.  Am I the kid who doesn’t know it’s taboo to point out the obvious when the Emperor has no clothes?

Even for future engineers and even Mathematicians, I think that people who truly love math and who demonstrate an aptitude for it, they should be offered higher math as electives in middle and high school and they would be in great shape to pursue it in college if it were needed for their degree or career.

But knowing Math, like Algebra, for example, isn’t really something anyone ‘needs’ for college the way that people would ‘need’ to be able to read.

The same, of course, applies to most subjects.  People don’t ‘need’ to know Chemistry.  It is good to get exposed to it in middle and high school and certainly learn about some of the great mysteries that mankind took thousands of years to sort out in developing the periodic table and things like that.  But you can be ‘college ready’ even if you still think that the four elements are,like the ancient Greeks, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

Now I’m a Math teacher and I take my job very seriously and I hope to make kids like Math and get the Math ‘bug’ where they want to solve Math problems, not because they are practical, but because they are interesting.  (See one of my most personal posts ‘The Death Of Math’ for more on this)  I don’t always succeed at this, but I think I do succeed a decent amount of the time, and I’m very proud of this.  When I present the right problem and I watch my students ponder it and then, one by one, they get that gleam in their eyes and then smile with the ‘aha’ moment — well, that’s the kind of thing that really keeps me going.

But I will be the first to admit that people could succeed just fine in college if they know very little Math — and the truth is that most people, even ones that managed to do well in their Math courses, really don’t ‘know’ Math at all, anyway.  What they kind of knew, they ‘forgot’ soon after the tests that supposedly proved that they truly learned it in a way that they could never forget it.

But I’m going to waiver a bit here and upgrade my answer to ‘maybe.’  Because college is a lot of jumping through hoops, getting the proper requirements and all that.  It is hard to succeed in college if you don’t have the ability to play by the rules, do stuff that you don’t want to do, pretend that you understand something that you really don’t, figure out how to pass tests proving that you understand something that you really don’t, etc.  So in that sense, someone who can’t force themselves to do something that they really don’t want to do, like learn Math, may not fare very well in college.

Being ‘obedient’ is somewhat of a prerequisite for succeeding in college and since learning Math, unfortunately, has become highly correlated with being obedient, then not being able to fake your way through a Math course might mean that you won’t be able to fake your way through college requirements either.

But this concept is getting challenged by the Common Core.  Now being ‘obedient’ isn’t enough.  To pass, you have to, at least in an ideal world, really understand what’s going on.  I do like the idea of challenging students to think more deeply about Math.  This idea is something that most Math teachers have been striving for way before the Common Core.  I have NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) journals and yearbooks going back fifty years helping teachers to infuse this kind of learning into their instruction.  And I do think that many students will not be able to deeply understand Math.  Some won’t put in the necessary time to study it — just like without practicing the piano you can’t get that good at it.  And some just won’t have the aptitude for it (this applies to rich kids and poor kids, so don’t attack me on this, thank you).  Everyone, though, should get exposed to Math in school and get a chance to engage in thought provoking problems in it.  But students who don’t master it to a deep level can certainly still succeed in college — they just won’t be Math majors.

In this case, Math will no longer be a euphemism for ‘obedience’ — something I’m OK with, but it also won’t correlate with ‘college readiness’ either.

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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. ...