News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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January 4, 2014

Solving the math problem

With Hoosier math scores lagging, educators explore new ways to teach subject

INDIANAPOLIS — Brittany Crider already had passed three remedial math courses at a community college when she transferred to a state university and was told she needed to take yet another one.

Crider was angry. She’d shelled out more than $1,000 for the courses that hadn’t earned her any college credit. Now, because she’d scored poorly on a skills test, she faced burning even more money and time on a class that wouldn’t help her toward the degree she needed to realize her dream of working with developmentally disabled adults.

 “I thought, ‘I’m never going to get through college,’” said Crider, a student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Crider found hope in IUPUI’s Math Assistance Center — a sunlit room filled with chattering students and tutors who work out math problems together on walls covered with dry-erase writing. There, she met Kevin Berkopes, the center director who’d just topped off two previous math degrees with a Ph.D.

Berkopes’ motto, “math is not an isolated sport,” surprised Crider. So did his advice not to blame herself for her struggles.

“When you’re told you have to take remedial math, you immediately feel stupid,” said Crider. “You come here and you realize you’re not stupid at all.”

Crider went on to excel in math, acing the final in her remedial math class and succeeding in her next credit-earning algebra class. This month, she’ll start as a peer mentor in the center.

Crider’s disheartening experience — that of a brand-new college student unprepared for the rigors of campus work — happens thousands of times a year across Indiana. One out of three of the state’s high school graduates who go on to college must take a remedial class, according to the Indiana Commission on Higher Education. The problem is especially acute in math: Of 10,000 students enrolled in remedial courses in Indiana’s public colleges and universities, about 90 percent are taking math.

The costs of remedial education are high for students and taxpayers. The Commission estimates tuition and government loans spent on remedial courses at the state’s community colleges exceed $35 million a year in Indiana alone. Complete College America, a non-profit advocacy organization, estimates states and students across the nation spend more than $3 billion on remedial courses each year.

Lawmakers, advocates and officials are pursuing various ways to better prepare students for college-level studies, but solutions are elusive. In 2013, for example, the state General Assembly passed a law that would require high schools to test every 11th-grader’s math skills and provide help for those not ready for college. That initiative has stalled amid the ongoing political disputes between the state’s elected schools chief, Democrat Glenda Ritz, and the state Board of Education, whose members are appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence.

In the meantime, people, including Berkopes and a team of educators at the IUPUI math center, assure incoming college freshmen. “I tell students all the time, ‘Math is hard. The best minds in the world couldn’t get this a few hundred years ago, and now we expect third-graders to be learning this,’” Berkopes said.

He and others at the math center are dedicated to changing the way the subject is taught.

“Our traditional model for math education needs to change,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense for the demands of today. We’re sending more kids to college than ever before, and too many of them just aren’t ready.”

Thinking, not memorizing

That equation is bad news for many students. An exhaustive study by Complete College America found only one in four who take remedial classes will eventually earn a degree. Many drop out, departing college only with the burden of a student loan.

Stan Jones, a former state legislator who now heads Complete College America, calls the current remediation model “a bridge to nowhere.”

“It’s very clear that what we’re doing right now is not working,” Jones said.

Since math is the subject that most often holds students back, it’s the subject coming under heaviest scrutiny. Math education researchers are calling for a fundamental redesign of how the subject is taught all through school, not just at the college level.

Among their criticisms: Memorization is prized over critical thinking, and algebra-heavy requirements are irrelevant to students’ career plans, while the statistics and quantitative reasoning they need go untaught.

“We’re not teaching the value of math,” said Jeffrey Watts, an IUPUI researcher who has studied how math is taught in other developed nations. “Our students don’t see any immediate application of math to the careers they want to pursue, whether that’s in nursing or firefighting.”

That disconnect has prompted the state’s largest public postsecondary institution, Ivy Tech Community College, to overhaul its curriculum. Of nearly 200,000 students enrolled on Ivy Tech campuses around the state, about 80 percent have had to take remedial classes — most in math.

Beginning this fall, Ivy Tech will offer a series of math options designed to bring students up to speed more quickly and steer them into courses that better connect with their career goals. There will be more emphasis on real-life applications and greater attention to identifying students’ specific deficiencies so remedial work can be customized.

Gone will be the typical remedial course, which offers no credit and delays a student’s path to a degree. Replacing it will be remediation that’s baked into credit-earning classes.

Sheila Yancey, a former high school instructor who now teaches remedial math at the Ivy Tech campus in Lawrence, said the change is really about improving math literacy.

“You can’t just memorize your way through math anymore,” said Yancey, who’s given up the traditional “talk and chalk” lecture approach to teaching math. Students in her classroom are required to work in teams, where they often discover there’s more than one way to solve a problem.

“They can watch me do a procedure on the board and do the exact same thing, but that’s not learning,” Yancey said. “That’s like telling them to watch me dismantle a bomb under a car, then expecting them to do it by themselves.”

Bathroom cleaning

The need for such solutions is more widespread than the campuses of IUPUI and Ivy Tech. High school students throughout the United States are struggling in math compared to their counterparts in other developed nations, according to a report just released by the Program for International Student Assessment. American students were close to average in science in reading but ranked 26th — among students in 34 countries — in math.

Berkopes, at IUPUI’s math center, groans at such reports.

“In the U.S., we think math skills are genetic,” he said. “You hear people joke, ‘I’m not a math person’ or ‘I can’t do math’ or ‘I can’t balance my checkbook.’ But you don’t hear the same people making jokes about how ‘I can’t read’ or ‘I don’t read too well.’”

“Math is a cultural thing here, where it’s okay to be bad at it,” he said. “I don’t know how that got started.”

The barrier is ingrained, indeed. A poll conducted for the non-profit Change the Equation, an organization funded by large U.S. corporations to boost the nation’s math skills, found that nearly a third of Americans say they would rather clean the bathroom than solve a math problem.

“I spend a lot of time helping my students overcome their feelings of frustration with math,” said Yancey, the IUPUI teacher. “They think something is wrong with their brain.”

Myriad solutions have been proposed to advance students’ math skills — if not change their perceptions about math — but there seems to be no simple answer.

In 2010, Indiana signed on to the Common Core State Standards, a set of K-12 academic standards in reading and math that aim to improve college readiness. Though 45 states have adopted the standards, the initiative has stalled in Indiana because of opponents who called Common Core a federal takeover of education.

Also stalled is the initiative adopted last year by the Legislature, which voted to require high schools to offer remedial instruction to juniors who did not meet math standards.

Additionally, there’s been a push by state education officials to require students to take four years of math, up from the current three-year requirement. That effort has significant support, fueled by evidence gathered by the state Commission for Higher Education: Of students who take four years of high school math to earn the state’s Academic Honors diploma, only 7 percent need remedial coursework in college. That’s compared to the 41 percent of students earning the standard, college-preparatory diploma, known as Core 40, who need remediation.

Nationally, Jones’ Complete College America advocates a nuanced approach to placing new college students in remedial courses. Instead of using high-stakes exams that can be poor predictors of college readiness, Jones said the better approach is to apply a range of scores from placement tests to identify students who can begin credit-earning courses with support from tutors or more frequent class meetings.

Jones’ group also recommends doing away with a standard college algebra requirement and instead tailoring math classes to a student’s area of study. Students studying psychology — like Brittany Crider — would benefit from classes focused on statistics.

The ultimate goal, said Jones, is to do away with obstacles that lead to college completion.

Berkopes said that will happen as math instruction more resembles the way languages are taught.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” he said.

But more isn’t necessarily better. Berkopes wants IUPUI to equip future math teachers with better weapons. His goal is to have every math education major work in the assistance center.

“The very essence of math is creativity and openness,” he said. “People think there is one correct answer, and that’s not true. There is not one correct technique for anything. The way we teach math now is so closed off, it just destroys the real beauty, what the discipline is. I don’t think teachers are doing it on purpose. They just need more information and help to really convey the true essence of what math could be.”

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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