Tuesday, June 7, 2016

"Unjustified use of Algebra 2"

The U.S. Department of Education organized a meeting (“California Math Convening: Gateways to Access – May 31, 2016”) to discuss California's use of Algebra 2 (a.k.a. Intermediate Algebra) in higher education. The meeting was held at the chancellor's office of the California State University (CSU) system. The participants included representatives from the CSU, the University of California, the California Community Colleges, K-12 educators, and educational policy organizations.

The meeting was the DOE's response to a September 30, 2015 letter from Christopher Edley, Jr., to the Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education. The letter begins with:
“I write to request that your office investigate the educationally unjustified use of Algebra 2 as a gateway course by all three segments of California’s higher education system: the University of California system; the California State University system; and the California Community College system. There is evidence to suggest that, in varying ways, these institutions have adopted policies and practices that impose a disparate impact on protected groups in violation not only of the equal protection clause of the California State Constitution, but also in violation of federal regulations implementing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
The letter cites the success of Statway, a project of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, as evidence that Intermediate Algebra is not actually necessary for success in completing math requirements for baccalaureate degrees in some majors. The letter concludes with:
“If there are villains here, they are the indifference and inertia that confirm and perpetuate unequal educational opportunity. I believe this discrimination is, for the most part, without animus. Regardless, the injury is real.” 
At the meeting, Christopher Edley Jr. explained that neither intent nor a history of practice would be considered relevant when determining if there is a violation of the Civil Rights Act. The presence of both Catherine Lhamon and also the Under Secretary U.S. DOE, Ted Mitchell, made abundantly evident that the DOE wants California's higher education community to recognize and address the issue.

Another speaker was William McCallum, mathematician with numerous distinctions including being one of the three lead writers of the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM). Bill explained that because College Algebra was the de facto mathematics requirement in U.S. baccalaureate granting institutions at the time of writing the CCSSM, the document needed to include the math that would lead to College Algebra, namely Algebra 2. He commented that it is  inappropriate for colleges or universities to cite the CCSSM to define what is currently needed to be college ready--it makes no sense to argue against modifying college math requirements based on the content of the CCSSM, as the CCSSM were created trying to reflect what the earlier college math requirements had been.

The U.S. DOE evidently intends to hold another such meeting in 3 or 4 months to check on what progress has been made.