Goshen News, Goshen, IN

January 12, 2014

Local educators recognize math challenges, realities

By SHERRY VAN ARSDALL sherry.vanarsdall@goshennews.com
Goshen News

---- — GOSHEN According to the Indiana Commission on Higher Education, one out of every three Hoosier high school graduates who go on to college must take a remedial class and about 90 percent are taking math remediation.

Goshen High School Principal Barry Younghans has seen similar data and gave his reasons why students may need more help with math in college.

“I believe algebra is a difficult subject, as well as other higher-level math courses,” Younghans said last week. “I think many students have a basic understanding of the concepts needed, but do not have the depth of knowledge needed to be successful in college-level algebra. The algebra End-of-Course Assessment (ECA) is a minimum competency test. College algebra and math demands more than that.”

Middlebury Community Schools Superintendent Jane Allen doesn’t disagree with the data, but has some reservations with the results.

“The statistic of one third of the students needing remediation is surprisingly high to me,” Allen said, “when considering Northridge High School students and the rest of the students in Elkhart County.”

Since statistics suggest math is the subject most often holding students back, it’s the subject coming under the heaviest scrutiny. And math education researchers are calling for a fundamental redesign of how the subject is taught throughout school, not just at the college level. Are some of the issues with the curriculum, teachers, and/or the number of years students have to take math?

Goshen Community Schools Superintendent Diane Woodworth says this is not a simple issue.

“I think we have the continuing challenge to teach students more at the conceptual level, so that they understand why mathematics works the way it does, and not just memorize algorithms and such,” Woodworth said. “Some of this is that we have not had the right curriculum. Some of it might be that teachers have not been prepared properly to teach at higher levels of learning. And some of it has to do with the motivation of students.”

Teaching how to think

Offering her opinion, Allen says the issues are neither the requirement for the number of years students take math nor the curriculum.

The curriculum has not changed that much through the years even with the Common Core standards, said Allen, who added that she taught math for 12 years. “The issue is with how the students are taught specific topics,” she said.

Allen said students need to be taught how to do math problems using specific computations and to apply the computational knowledge to problems in the real world that are meaningful to them.

“If they are not taught how to ‘think,’ weaknesses will abound when trying to assess mathematical knowledge at the beginning college level,” Allen said. “I have always held the belief that teachers are the most important part of the learning process.”

When teachers provide meaningful instruction with exceptional motivational techniques and accountability efforts, students will achieve success, she added.

And students at Goshen High School are learning math the way it’s currently taught, Younghans added.

“In fact, our math scores are pretty good in both ECA and our International Baccalaureate (IB) program results,” Younghans said. “Most of our students report back to us that they are very prepared for college level classes.”

Woodworth agrees and added there’s room for improvement, as well.

“Yes, our students are learning, but there are areas in which we need to continue to grow,” the superintendent said.

Not all skill sets are equal

So, what can be done to improve math literacy at the high school level to keep students from having to take a remedial class?

As a high school principal, Younghans says students need to continually and repeatedly be asked to think and solve problems at high levels in all classes, not just math.

“This needs to begin early in the student’s life and continue through college,” Younghans said. “Colleges also need to have realistic expectations about what math skills students need. I am not certain why a social worker needs to be able to pass college calculus. Engineers and physicists need a huge depth and breadth of math. In other words...not every kid or career has to have the same math skill set.”

Highly qualified and effective math teachers make all the difference, Allen added.

“Math can be fun,” Woodworth said. “But it has to be the correct level or type of math that each student needs for his/her next step in life.”

Tom Holtzinger taught math for 38 years with Goshen Community Schools. In his opinion, colleges nowadays have some unrealistic expectations.

“Colleges and universities are admitting more and more students and have lowered their standards,” Holtzinger said. “They’re almost willing to admit anyone and should raise their standards. Not everybody should be going to college anyway. There needs to be more encouragement for those going to vocational or trade schools.”

The former teacher says testing programs are “somewhat to blame” and the need for students to achieve high SAT scores.

“How much more can you expect students to do?” he asked.

Holtzinger says there’s a need for less politics in finding answers to the math problem.

“Politicians are looking for a short-term solution,” he said. “We need to get everybody on board and get on the same page. Parents and students need to be willing to work. We have too many kids who could (not) care less. ”