Intermediate Algebra Must Die!!

“Intermediate Algebra Must Die!” … I said this at two recent meetings (first at a conference, then at my college).  The need for this demise is ‘over-determined’, to use a social science phrase:  several factors, each of which would be sufficient, are present to create a conclusion with multiple rationales from different perspectives.  #IntermediateAlgebra #AlgebraicLiteracy  #NewLifeProject

The first rationale for the necessary demise of Intermediate Algebra comes from data concerning preparation for ‘college math’ (most often college algebra or pre-calculus).  The CCRC and ACT both have discontinuity regression research showing that intermediate algebra does not prepare students.  [See the first part of my presentation on Algebraic Literacy at]  The most optimistic results show a 2% to 5% gain in pass rates after an intermediate algebra course compared to students with similar backgrounds; of the 4 data sets, 1 had this very small positive result … 2 have ‘null’ (no gain), and 1 has ‘negative’ (students do worse after intermediate algebra, compared to similar students who did not).

The second rationale for the necessary demise of Intermediate Algebra comes from the policies about degree requirements at our institutions.  At hundreds of institutions, students can meet a general education requirement for a degree by using the remedial math course called ‘Intermediate Algebra’.  This policy makes two horrible statements at once:  first, that we don’t think it is important for students to learn additional mathematics; second, that we don’t think students have sufficient abilities to learn additional mathematics.  We are not just accommodating negative perceptions about learning mathematics, we are reinforcing them.

The third rationale for the necessary demise of Intermediate Algebra comes from its origins:  Intermediate Algebra was copied from the high school curriculum during a period when procedure and repetition were emphasized (in reaction to the original ‘new math’) in a design based on low standards for teacher credentials (the thought was ‘make it teacher-proof’).  This origin of the course is clearly related to the data referenced above; however, this rationale is based on the contradictory nature of the course compared to any set of modern curricular standards (as in Common Core, or even the original NCTM standards).  Intermediate Algebra is a professional embarrassment.

The last rationale for the necessary demise of Intermediate Algebra comes from the politicization of developmental mathematics:  as long as we are teaching ‘high school courses’, policy makers are going to attack our curriculum in colleges.  These stakeholders do not see why they should pay a second time for the same treatment, and many do not see any appropriate benefit from the course.  This rationale, like the third, suggests that all traditional developmental mathematics be removed ASAP and replaced (to the extent needed) by modern courses designed for college use (such as the New Life Project courses, Mathematical Literacy and Algebraic Literacy).  A course being “pre-college” does not mean “high school”.

We need to ‘own our problem’; for too long, we have continued our weak copies of weak high school courses to stand in the way of actually preparing students.  We have taken the easy road, sometimes creating a significant revenue source for our colleges, when we should have focused on our students’ needs in college.  We have reinforced the “I can’t do math” belief, and sold our profession short.  We have placed our entire curriculum at risk by requiring many students to take high school courses in college.

Intermediate algebra must die!

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  • By Kenneth Tilton, December 14, 2015 @ 10:54 am

    If it were possible for all TYC students to pass Intermediate Algebra, would you still say that?

    I know that sounds impossible and has been impossible for decades, but there are new on-line algebra environments popping up all the time, including some based on live tutoring on demand. I know, I am competing with them.

    Most are not that great, but Mathspace is pretty good and my own product is pretty good and has already turned failing students around. For mine, just check out Or ping me at ken at and I will be delighted to show you the app over GotoMeeting.

    Of course if your answer above was “yes”… never mind!

  • By Jack Rotman, December 14, 2015 @ 11:20 am

    That would be ‘yes’. Sorry (:
    The 100% pass rate would impact the data rationale and the political one, but not those which are mathematical (the content, college expectations)
    When we (AMATYC) started the New Life Project, one of my colleagues said bluntly that even with 90% to 100% pass rates the traditional curriculum has got to go. I think that is correct … though I would love to see high pass rates in the replacement courses.
    The student effort should provide benefits that justify their investment.

  • By Kenneth Tilton, December 14, 2015 @ 4:11 pm

    OK, never mind! 🙂

    I just wonder if the bad experience TYC instructors have had — years of teaching algebra and even arithmetic to college students — has not spoiled pure math for those instructors.

    We are all good problems solvers and one thing good problem solvers do is think outside the box: “Hey, maybe Algebra is the problem.”

    I see Algebra as an opportunity: In brief, Algebra is not that hard, so kids are failing it for some more general underlying reason. Helping them pass Algebra will help them in more general ways, by teaching them how to persevere, and indeed by teaching them that perseverance does pay off.

    Thanks for the feedback from the front lines.

  • By schremmer, December 14, 2015 @ 7:54 pm

    Intermediate Algebra is not about to die any time soon if only because of entrenched interests: those of Pearson but also those of the faculty teaching it and those of schools making money hand over fist from this type of course with the prospect of making even more.

    And Intermediate Algebra is not going to die also because its death would be perceived as likely to disrupt the status quo and no one has any idea with what to replace it.

    In fact, intermediate Algebra cannot be killed, as long as Precalculus, the reincarnation of College Algebra, has not been killed too. And Precalculus is not going to die either as long as it has not been reunited with the Differential Calculus. And, in spite of the few millions it spent in the late 80s, even the NSF was not able to reconstruct the Calculus. In reality, nothing works.

    And this is of course because each and every one of these courses has been atomized, gutted from any common sense, let alone honesty, and has included any kitchen sink that happened to be fashionable at the time.

    So, any one serious about the matter would essentially have to construct a three semester sequence, say 5-4-4, starting from Arithmetic up to and including the Differential Calculus and probably followed, instead of by the Integral Calculus, by Differential Equations, perhaps in the shape of Dynamical Systems. And, to be something really viable and really useful, the whole thing would have to be tightly integrated.

    And that is the real reason why Intermediate Algebra et all will survive: nobody wants to tackle the job of constructing or even experimenting with such a sequence, nobody is interested in even discussing it.

  • By Peter Brown, January 9, 2016 @ 6:05 pm

    There are some fundamentally excellent ideas of what it should be replaced by. To start, if you need remediation, look at Almy’s Math Lit book. For a college QR course , we use Thinking Quantitatively by Eric Gaze. There are others also, but I think that for me is the best. Teaching factoring to student who fundamentally need relevant math to participate in our society, and to function responsibly in their personal live is patently absurd.

  • By Peter Brown, January 9, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

    As a ‘college’ course for a degree requirement Intermediate Algebra is a farce, and people need to face up to this. As there are now great alternatives, I really think we should put some effort into bringing this to fruition.

  • By Peter Brown, January 9, 2016 @ 6:25 pm

    96% of the cohort entering high school do not become STEM majors in the end. What about the mathematical experience of the other 96%? As 87% of American’s are quantitatively illiterate- re examination of what we are doing is essential. If we don’t address this, we might as well eliminate a math requirement from our degree program.

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