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California Educator Claims Algebra is “Civil Rights Issue.” Should be Eliminated from Community College

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Eloy Ortiz Oakley, a chancellor of a California community college system, is making the argument that algebra should be eliminated from the standard curriculum requirements for graduates. He believes the course is an obstacle to student success, especially for first-generation undergraduates and minorities as well as those not pursuing a degree in a STEM field.

As reported by NPR, algebra is the single most failed college course in community colleges throughout the nation today. Currently, around 60 percent of students enrolled in community college are required to complete at least one math course, and nearly 80 percent of those students don’t successfully do so.

Oakley, along with a growing number of educators, believes intermediate algebra shouldn’t be a requirement for majors that don’t necessitate the skill. Instead, he thinks students should need to take math courses that are more relevant to their degree.

In California, only 48 percent of students either graduate with an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year college or university within six years, and the college algebra requirement is potentially responsible for at least some of the disparity.

During an interview, Oakley denies that the removal of the algebra requirement is simply a method for increasing graduation rates. Instead, he asserts that shifting away from algebra being seen as “the only measure of a student’s ability to reason or to do some sort of quantitative measure” and instead replace the requirement with “as rigorous a course as possible” that is “relevant to their course of study.”

Oakley states, “There are other math courses that we could introduce that tell us a lot more about our students.”

For clarity, Oakley isn’t suggesting that math in its entirety be removed as a requirement. Instead, he questions whether algebra should be the standard by which all students are measured.

“There’s an argument to be made that much of what we ask students to learn prepares them to be just better human beings, allows them to have reasoning skills,” said Oakley. “But again, the question becomes: What data do we have that suggests algebra is that course? Are there other ways that we can introduce reasoning skills that more directly relate to what a student’s experience in life is and really helps them in their program of study or career of choice?”

Oakley also considered the continuation of algebra as a requirement as a “civil rights issue.” Statistically, the failure rates are higher for minorities in algebra courses than whites.

He also believes that “low-income Americans” are also disproportionately affected by the requirement.

According to Oakley, the intention isn’t to “commit students to lower levels of math or different kinds of math.” Instead, Oakley says, “What we’re saying is we want more students to have math skills that allow them to keep moving forward.”