Intermediate Algebra … the Barrier Preventing Progress

The traditional math curriculum in colleges is significantly resistant to change and progress; I talked about some of the reasons for this condition in a recent post about the Common Core & the Common Vision related to the future of college mathematics (see http://www.devmathrevival.net/?m=201703  )  We carry some historical baggage which creates additional forces resisting efforts to make progress in the curriculum at the college level.

Our “Intermediate Algebra” course occupies a position of power.  First … it has long served as the only accepted demarcation between “college level” and courses which are not.  AMATYC recently approved a position statement to help clarify this demarcation (see http://www.amatyc.org/?page=PositionInterAlg )   Second … it has been used as the prerequisite to both college algebra and pre-calculus, which contradicts the origin of intermediate algebra as a copy of HS algebra II (which was never designed for this prerequisite role).

I’ve written previously about the need for Intermediate Algebra to be intentionally removed from the college curriculum; see http://www.devmathrevival.net/?p=2347

Intermediate Algebra must die … now!

Recently, we’ve had some email discussion in my state about the credential requirements for faculty … especially those teaching “intermediate algebra”.  Although we all want to provide students with quality faculty for every math course, we don’t agree on what this means.  Like most accrediting bodies, ours makes a distinction between developmental courses and general education courses; developmental courses require that faculty have a degree at least one level above what they teach … while general education courses require that faculty have 18 graduate credits in the field they are teaching.

Because of that credentialing difference, faculty teaching college mathematics courses tend to be functionally separate from those teaching developmental math courses (unless at a small institution).  A consequence of this faculty split is that the interface zone (intermediate algebra to college algebra in particular) is difficult to change in basic ways.  Faculty with a STEM focus are more concerned with their ‘upper level’ courses (calculus, linear algebra, etc), while those with a developmental focus are often more concerned with the beginning algebra level.

Intermediate algebra, just by its presence in our curriculum, is a barrier to making progress in modernizing our work.  If we were to remove Intermediate Algebra as a course, both levels of mathematics faculty would (by necessity) work together to create a more reasonable replacement.  If Intermediate Algebra had never existed, do you think we would create that same course now?  Obviously, no … we would do something much more reasonable.

Intermediate Algebra must die … now!

Efforts to ‘improve’ intermediate algebra typically involve micro-adjustments (different mix of skills).  Changes of this type have been tried over the past 30 years (or more) with almost no impact on any problem or outcome.  Our problems have become severe enough that no set of micro-changes will create a solution … we need macro-changes.

We need to remove the barrier — get rid of your intermediate algebra course (and mine!).  Replace it with a modern course like Algebraic Literacy (http://www.devmathrevival.net/?page_id=2312) if that makes sense to you.  Or, create a different solution for the problems.  Of course, part of the solution is to keep some of the students out of any course at the intermediate algebra level — developmental but preparing for college algebra.  Intermediate algebra is certainly not needed as preparation for statistics or quantitative reasoning at the college level.

Some of us are having a strong response to this proposal (of removing the intermediate algebra barrier).  If you live in a state that has a policy of ‘intermediate algebra for general education in college’, or your institution has such a policy, you are experiencing another reason why intermediate algebra is a barrier that must be removed.  Intermediate algebra is a copy (sometimes quite weak) of an old high school mathematics course in an era when the overwhelming majority of our students have experienced more advanced mathematics in their high school.  This was true before ‘the Common Core’, and is becoming more true as time goes on.

Intermediate Algebra must die … now!

We can create viable solutions, with modern courses about current mathematical needs, if we are just willing to toss this one course from our curriculum.  Intermediate Algebra must die, and die soon.  It is a barrier to progress that we … and our students … need urgently.  Don’t wait for a replacement to be ‘ready’ — the solution will be ready when we are committed to make a change.

Which of these is your choice?

  • Eliminate intermediate algebra at your institution effective Fall 2018
  • Eliminate intermediate algebra at your institution effective Fall 2019
  • Eliminate intermediate algebra at your institution effective Fall 2020
  • Ignore the intermediate algebra problem, and hope it goes away by itself.

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