## Anti-Algebra College Mathematics: What are we DOING?

Much “cool-aid” has been distributed in recent years (as in “he/she has drunk the cool aid” … become a ‘convert’). Our institutional leadership cadre sing the praises of ‘alignment’ and pathways, and celebrate the emphasis of non-algebraic courses in college curricula.

Of course, the word ‘algebra’ itself has multiple meanings. In this post, I am referring to polynomial algebra along with the reasonable connections to geometry, trigonometry, and modeling at the curricular level of first year of college. The delivered curriculum in ‘algebra’ has degraded to the point that the primary student outcome is ‘survival’ that qualifies them to take another course.

This is not the same discussion as “Algebra II for All” in the K-12 world; we could debate the pros and cons of that issue, though in most ways that train has left the station. Our interest is in college mathematics in the first two years.

At the highest level, an observation is that the enrollments in STEM-enabling math courses is declining based on increased enrollments in courses aligned with programs (by which I mean statistics and quantitative reasoning [QR]). As a general education course for students in non-scientific programs I think a rigorous QR course is the best option. Such a rigorous QR course includes a significant focus on algebra and algebraic reasoning. We probably don’t reach that goal very often in QR courses. In any case, the STEM-enabling math courses are declining in enrollment.

Why? Why does our leadership consider these non-algebra options to be superior? Is it because they have conferred with us about the mathematical needs of students within the context of their programs and the issues of the 21st century? Have some of us taken on the anti-algebra mantle to the extent that we encourage excessive emphasis on statistics and QR?

Sometimes, algebra has been used as a filter to weed out students who “can’t make it”. Let’s be honest — that is not the nature of algebra, only the nature of algebra courses used to weed out students. A positive … and accurate … conception of algebra is this:

- Algebra provides a set of tools for representing scientific and technical knowledge
- Algebra provides a framework for dealing with quantitative problems which are not primarily computational exercises
- Algebra encourages precise communication

If students do not need to deal with scientific or technical knowledge, AND will not need to deal with quantitative problems, then the emphasis of QR and statistics is not inappropriate. As mathematicians, we value the precise communication aspect of algebra, and we might even make the case that this type of communication is just as foundational as the ‘regular’ communication areas (writing, speech, etc). That rationale is probably insufficient to require students to take an algebraic STEM-enabling course.

Let’s just consider the first feature of algebra — representing knowledge. Take a look at the occupations with the best employment prospects (above minimum wage), and I think you will find primarily scientific and technical fields (including health careers). Some of the very best employment prospects are in highly quantitative professions.

We don’t need all of our students to declare a STEM major (though we can always dream of what this would be like). However, I wonder if the rush to completion is putting a large portion of our students in programs for which they are either not prepared for the jobs available OR not prepared to handle the quantitative demands of those jobs. That statement might not be clear; here’s an example of the latter condition: students in an associate degree nursing program take a statistics class to meet their math requirement, but they are not prepared to deal with problems requiring algebraic representations or algebraic reasoning.

The ‘elephant’ in the room is how poorly we have been delivering algebra-based courses in college. In spite of fundamental changes in both the mathematics profession and in K-12 mathematics, we still emphasize courses which might be called “death by algebra” … which serve to weed out students rather than prepare students. How could we, in good conscience, suggest to our leadership that these algebra courses should be used instead of the QR or statistics course?

The changes in college mathematics, so far, have been at the edges — developmental mathematics reform and co-requisites (usually for QR or statistics). I believe that the external pressure will come to our algebra-based STEM-enabling courses: either we make fundamental changes to those courses OR the leadership will make curricular changes that take our courses out of the normal set of student programs. Within 10 years, we could be dealing with a situation in which the only students taking STEM-enabling math courses are those in ‘high’ STEM fields (physics, engineering, perhaps a few math majors).

What’s the future you want to see? What’s the role of STEM-enabling math courses in your vision?

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