Math Students Repeating Courses Without Success

As reported on EdSource in Many math students are flailing, repeating courses without success, “68 percent of students who haven’t passed one of the required courses, Algebra II, by the end of 11th grade don’t even enroll in math as seniors, giving up on the possibility of applying to a UC or CSU school.”

From my limited time in the classroom, too many students seem to have given up on their chance to go to college well before they even get to algebra I, much less algebra II, at least in terms of their effort towards improving their performance or achievement in mathematics.  Yet, if you ask these students, they nearly unanimously say they want to go to college.

Why is this the case?  From my perspective, it boils down to forcing them to try to learn and to master work for which they are not ready.  The reasons for students’ lack of readiness are vast and varied.  Unfortunately, little attention is given to the factors impacting readiness outside of a classroom.  Instead, efforts primarily focus on what is deemed “teacher effectiveness” in teaching specific standards ignoring intricate, myriad factors such as poverty.  Notwithstanding the specific reasons for students unpreparedness, pretending that a teacher in a room full of twenty to thirty or more underprepared students can work miracles day in and day out to bring students’ abilities up to grade level when they are two, three, or more grades behind borders on social negligence.

Commentary to the EdSource post focused on minor matters, in my judgement, leading me to make the following comments, which I posted a few moments ago.


Rather than debate minutia, I believe it is important to step back and question the logic behind the policies that herd students into an algebra 1 course, irrespective of their readiness, whether as the first time in 6th grade, or the last time in 12th grade. While I am new to education as a profession, it is readily apparent to me, and anyone skilled in scientific inquiry, as tempered by common sense, that those policies are deeply flawed in multiple ways. First and foremost, the rationale that algebra 1 is a gateway course, hence all must take it in middle school confuses correlation with causation. The continued misinterpretation and continued misapplication of statistical analysis twists policies to suit agendas, rather than reality as efforts progress with slogans of “College for All” or “No Child Left Behind,” which anyone would wish for all children; yet simply wishing it were so has never worked in any repeatable, sustainable fashion. Pushing beliefs that all students must go to college since we need more STEM graduates, or for social justice / equity reasons, places wishful thinking ahead of reasoned approaches, and logic itself.

Routing all students into algebra, whether in middle school, or high school presumes all are prepared; yet as this report shows, the well-intended policy repeatedly, and in increasingly large numbers, forces a student, parent, teacher and school into stressful situations where success is elusive, no matter how intensely we support a student. Worse, the result has been a generation of students disgorged from public education ill-equipped to support themselves, much less a family.

Advocating to continue the policy simply since the number of students taking more advanced levels of math has increased over the years, or some other myopic metric, seems equally illogical. Yes, a student is neither a percentage, nor a statistic; they are cognitive and emotive beings with specific knowledge, understanding, and skill at specific moments in time, which may or may not be adequate for them to succeed in a specific course of study, or sequence according to a one-size-fits-all master plan. That is the essence of this study, which any secondary mathematics teacher could have readily explained after a few months teaching a heterogeneous set of students, especially one whose demographics includes a high concentration of students from low-income families.

Nonetheless, my limited time running an algebra intervention class, two algebra 1 classes, and two AP Calculus AB classes in a Title I school provides me with a glimmer of hope that finding ways to elevate students from their existing level of understanding and skill, wherever that might be, yields more benefit to the student, and potentially society, than any ongoing debate about specific standards à la common core, pacing calendars, benchmark exams, CST scores, district mandated pedagogy, or other well-meant but often ineffective solutions. I’m seeing traction teaching students where they are in the moment; albeit, it consumes a tremendous amount of time and energy to do so.

See my latest post related to this topic.


About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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2 Responses to Math Students Repeating Courses Without Success

  1. Pingback: Success » Diigo Links (weekly)

  2. Pingback: Success » Can’t, Won’t, Failures and Recovery

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