Yes, I am using an emotional label being used about developmental education … yes, I am saying intermediate algebra might be such a thing. A bit of a cheap trick, but I hope that you will continue reading anyway!

The content of our intermediate algebra courses is usually based on topics that were once covered in a second year high school algebra course. That course, in turn, was created by companies and teams of authors (often a combination of university mathematics educators and high school math teachers). I have not seen any documents relating to how the companies and authors determined the content; I suspect that much was based on a view “well, this topic would be good for them”.

All of this work occurred long before a general emphasis was placed on understanding, application, and cognitive science. Procedural accuracy is the hallmark of our intermediate algebra courses — even more so than the high school algebra II course; it’s like we copied the content but limited our work to the lowest levels of learning.

We actually have some helpful stuff in there, if students can remember it later when (and if) they take more advanced courses (whether a pre-calculus/analysis course or in calculus). The better students may do this; most do not, because the material is not usually taught in a way to create long term use.

So, here is an initial list of reasons why intermediate algebra is the biggest ‘bridge to nowhere':

- content created over 50 years ago outside of our curricular process
- textbooks focus on procedural accuracy
- learning heavily weighted towards lowest levels of learning

Students who pass an intermediate algebra course meet the prerequisite for some college math courses; however, the intermediate algebra course did not prepare students for that course. Nor does the intermediate algebra course contribute to mathematical understanding, nor to positive attitudes about mathematics.

Fortunately, we have a model for replacing intermediate algebra — the Algebraic Literacy course from the New Life model. The outcomes for this course were extracted from what students need in subsequent courses, and these outcomes include both procedural and understanding emphases. In addition, the Algebraic Literacy course includes the use of mathematics to understand the quantitative components of issues in the world — such as the spread of infectious disease.

The Dana Center work on a Stem Path is also involved in creating a replacement for intermediate algebra. Those teams are approaching the problem from a similar viewpoint, so I expect their results to be compatible with the New Life Algebraic Literacy course even if their content has some significant differences.

To learn more about the Algebraic Literacy course, I encourage you to come to my session next week at the AMATYC Conference (Nashville); this session is at 8am on Friday (November 14). [I am also doing a general session on the New Life model that Saturday (November 15) at 2:15pm; this session will include basic information about Algebraic Literacy.]

If you are not able to be at the AMATYC conference, take a look at the Instant Presentations page on this blog http://www.devmathrevival.net/?page_id=116 . After the conference, I will be posted the materials from the session on that page.

Of course, if you have any questions about the Algebraic Literacy course, just contact me!

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