By Bianca Sanchez
Inside room 341B of Lane Tech High School, Kristina Chambers snacks on a handful of grapes during her prep period, and speaks about her hardworking students.
“These are your kids who don’t pick up things as fast as some of your other average math students,” said Chambers. “They might just memorize it for the time being so that they can test on it. Then they forget it. Then memorize the next set of information.”
Chambers teaches “college math” for Lane Tech seniors. The course goes over difficult material introduced in algebra, geometry and trigonometry classes one more time before students go off to college. It’s meant to help address a disturbing trend in the state: more than 40 percent of students graduating from Illinois high schools and entering community colleges need remedial courses in math.
Last December, the Illinois State Board of Education released their annual report card. It showed that 49 percent of Illinois high school grads in 2013 who went on to attend Illinois community colleges were enrolled in at least one remedial course. Of the three core remediation subjects, math beat out communications and reading, for the highest enrollment: 41 percent.
These remedial courses are required to better prepare some college students before they take actual college courses. The material taught is what should have been learned in high school. Though such remedial courses don’t count toward college graduation and may mean students graduate later, they cost money.
Nationally, one in four students enroll in a remedial class their first year of college. The group Education Reform Now found these courses cost families a collective $1.5 billion per year.
For low-income students from public schools like those in Chicago that often have below-average achievement rates, this can be a real burden.
But Illinois educators have some ideas about how to alleviate the economic and academic impacts behind these statistics.
Supporting community colleges
With 49 community colleges and one million students each year, Illinois has the third largest community college system in the nation. Although the system educates 65 percent of the state’s public higher education students, it receives only 15 percent of the state’s higher education funding.
A 2014 American Association of Community Colleges study found 28 percent more community college students take remedial classes than do four-year public college students.
Richard Zelenka is the chair of foundational studies at Wright College, a Chicago community college, overseeing college readiness and remedial courses in math and English. He says the high enrollment in remedial courses, specifically math, is the result of ISBE not requiring students to take four math courses over their four high school years. With three mandated courses (algebra, geometry and algebra-trig) already completed by senior year, college-bound students often avoid taking a mathematics course their final year of high school.
“While you may or may not have been good at math, taking a year off of math really nailed the coffin shut as far as what you recall, retain, and do,” Zelenka said.
This argument especially rings true for students who originally had no plan of attending college. While schools are often called “college prep,” not all students see preparing for college as their goal. Often, students succumb to “senioritis” and breeze through senior year with a course load full of electives.
In addition to this, Zelenka argues, higher level math covers several far-fetched topics that, without practice, can be too out of reach for students.
“There’s a certain point where the trajectory of math goes off onto this angle that takes it out of everyday life,” Zelenka said. “Once we get into the obscure, the unknowns, algebra and trigonometry, that’s not everyday application. Kids don’t see the reality of being able to learn that and reinforce it, because it’s not there.”
Living in a “technology world”, Zelanka says, allows calculators and YouTube tutorials to spoon-feed students results with little thought given to the process.
“Do you need to read a recipe and figure out all these cups and ratios and proportions, and 3 cups of sugar to 2 cups of flour, or can you just watch the YouTube video on how to cook and it will show exactly what you need to do,” Zelenka said.
Zelenka thinks two specific proposals will mean significant gains for high school students: four years of required math and remedial classes in high schools.
“Rather than wait till [they] get to college to do a remediation class, pass a remediation class, and then be eligible for credit, I think that high schools should offer the remediation class that they would have gotten in college, in their senior year.”
Methods similar to Zelenka’s suggestion have been implemented across the country.
In Tennessee, multiple community colleges run dual enrollment math labs in collaboration with area high schools. In Washington state, Bridge to College allows low-performing seniors to take courses in high school designed in partnership with community colleges. If the students earn a B or higher in the program, they are automatically enrolled in credited classes once in college, bypassing the remedial class.
Faulty assessments in high schools and elementary schools
Lane Tech employs both of Zelenka’s solutions, requiring four years of math, though ISBE does not, and offering “college math” to help students refresh their math skills, learn new ones and ensure they are ready for a college-level course.
Chambers has taught math at Lane Tech for 10 years. Her primary focus this year is being the sole college math teacher.
What sets Chambers’ course apart is the pace, and avoiding a “memorize-forget” mentality.
“For a lot of these kids they always talk about the pacing,” Chambers said. “I am trying to get them to hopefully understand a little more and not have to memorize forget, memorize forget for those individual assessments.”
Though the college math course is mainly comprised of seniors, a few juniors are enrolled.
Chambers and her fellow teachers believe that the CPS Algebra Exit Exam doesn’t accurately reflect students’ readiness for certain subject matter. They say they are forced to place students into geometry courses knowing they don’t yet understand the basic algebra needed to do geometry.
Misplacements like this during freshman year reap results in later years. In Chambers’ case, a handful of her “college math” students are juniors who passed the Algebra Exit Exam. Perhaps, she thinks, these students were never ready for the accelerated courses.
“[The juniors] were placed in Geometry their freshman year. They obviously didn’t do very well in either geometry or algebra-trig and got placed in college [math],” Chambers said. “That is, for me, an indication that they were improperly placed in the beginning.”
Katherine Jimenez teaches an eighth grade gifted class at CPS’s Pulaski International School in Chicago. She hand-selects a group of promising students to learn Algebra 1. The students then take the CPS placement exam Chambers and her colleagues find so problematic.
Jimenez believes offering a summer course to fill the gaps between eighth grade and freshman Algebra 1 will help better prepare students who passed the Exit Exam. However, she realizes this will mean money. Money that CPS and schools do not have.
A cheaper alternative, Jimenez argues, is simply having higher expectations, in everything. She suggests raising the pass score on the CPS Algebra test, but more importantly, raising the 24 percent promotion policy for CPS elementary school students into high school.
A 24 percent promotion policy allows students with district-wide assessment scores falling at or above the 24th percentile to move on to the next grade with no summer school, unless they have a failing final report card grade in math or reading. This promotion policy is only used in third, sixth and eighth grades. Students in other years are guaranteed promotion to the next grade.
“What are we saying with a 24 percent?” Jimenez said. “That you are starting high school way below average. And they wonder why after four years of high school they are still way below average.”
“Just not a Math Person”
Some people pull out the phrase “I’m just not a math person”, like the ace in their back pocket. They pull it out when miscalculating a tip or messing up their measurements in the kitchen.
“If you went to a party and said ‘I can’t read and I can’t write,’ everybody would look at you pretty shocked. But if you were to have said, ‘Boy, I really can’t do math,’ half the room would agree with you,” Zelenka said.
To Zelenka and Chambers, “not a math person” is a state of mind, one that can be overcome if the right effort is put in.
“I can’t tell you how many kids wrote that on their evaluation ‘I’ve never been a math person,’ ‘this is the first math class where I actually feel like I am learning something …or I feel like I can actually do something,’” Chambers said. “It’s not too hard, it’s just too fast. Granted some kids need tutoring, you just need it.”
Socio-economic status is also a factor. Wealthy struggling students can afford private tutors and additional material. More educated parents can help with homework more, even if they can’t afford tutors. But students from lower income families or with parents who lack education do not have those options.
“I know [in] some of these homes poverty is really high,” Jimenez said, throwing her arm towards her class room window. “I think a lot of it boils down to money and resources and what are we doing for the families that can’t afford a private tutor.”
Minorities are also specifically being represented in the startling statistics. Two-thirds of all minorities in Illinois public higher education attend community colleges. These students are launched out of college into a rougher job market, requiring their skills to be ever more developed.
In an attempt to help students of any economic status or race better understand the math, teachers have turned to new methods.
Jimenez uses an online program called Agile Mind, an animation and simulation-based form of learning that focuses on putting math in a context kids can understand.
Chambers encourages her students to inform her when they need more time on a specific topic.
“Students are coming from environments where they don’t have a role model at home,” Zelenka said. “You went home and said, ‘Boy I’m trying to decide between psychology and philosophy mom, which one do you think I should take?’ Your mom looks at you and says I can’t spell either one of them, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.’ Well that’s tough on some kids.”
For this reason, Zelenka’s remedial department focuses on the non-cognitive parts of the subject, the skills that can’t be graded on a test. Skills that build college success, including time management and study technique, are embedded in the math.
“Math is [a major] fear kids have going into college. And if you can take their major fear, get them comfortable with it, and at the same time allow them to grow as a student, that’s where the success comes in.”