Friday, July 23, 2010

Damn faculty, standing in the way of student success...

One of the blogs I read is Confessions of a Community College Dean.  I teach at a community college, am currently a department chair and did a one-semester stint as an Acting Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, so much of what he blogs about is very familiar.  I usually like what "Dean Dad" (as he calls himself) has to say.

I do have some issues with his last post, however, where he talks about calculators in math classes.  After an introduction, which I'll return to in a minute, he writes...

That said, it’s pretty clear at my college -- and at many, many others -- that lower-level math classes (especially developmental) are the most difficult academic obstacles many of our students face. The drop/fail rate in developmental math is embarrassingly and stubbornly high, and the national literature suggests that students who drop out because they feel overmatched in math are among the least likely ever to return.
Same at our institution and everyplace else given discussions I've had with my colleagues at other institutions.  It truly amazes me that students earn a high school diploma in June, enter our college in August, and the mandatory math placement exam puts them into remedial math (the equivalent of 8th grade, or lower).

Many of these students also place into remedial English, being unable to write a coherent sentence,but that's another story.  Our local high schools are failing society by allowing illiterate students to graduate with diplomas (and New York consistently ranks among the top 5 states in spending per student - we're wasting our money).

Well  "Dean Dad" was complaining in his blog that professors at his school didn't allow students to use calculators in their math classes.  He admits to some sympathy for this, citing the need for students to have an ability to distinguish reasonable from unreasonable answers.

Another short digression...  I teach geology and I've seen first-hand that students often have no number sense.  This usually shows up in my map lab where students learn to work with topographic (and other) maps.  I've seen students use calculators to convert a number in kilometers to meters (for those in the humanities reading this, it's simply a matter of moving the decimal place to the right 3 places - a distance of 1.2 km is simple 1,200 meters - hardly a matter for the calculator).  I've seen students multiply instead of divide when doing map scale conversions and then write down that it's 15,400,000 kilometers between two towns on the map instead of the correct answer of 15.4 km.  These problems are the sole result of students using calculators from their earliest math classes and failing to develop a sense of what constitutes a reasonable answer.

"Dean Dad" then assumes a correlation between not allowing calculators in the classroom and student's poor performance in college math classes.

...but is it worth flunking out huge cohorts of students because their high schools let them use calculators and we don’t?

He then writes:

At this point, the local high schools seem largely to have moved into the calculator camp. Wise and worldly readers, should we follow?

Here's the problem.  At my institution, we do more than allow calculators in math classes, we force the students to purchase fancy TI programmable calculators for the college algebra sequence (the equivalent of 9th grade algebra back when I went to school, by the way).  We still have the same problems with student retention as those at "Dean Dad's" institution.  It's not the calculators!

Let me just add a few more thoughts as well...

"Dean Dad" seems like a nice guy and I typically agree with him, but he started hit blog post by writing:

My scholarly background is in a social science discipline, not math. I have no particular pet theory on the right and proper way to teach math.

This is why we need to preserve tenure (which "Dean Dad" also dislikes).  What professors like me fear, is that a dean will then decide that math professors will need to change their calculator policies and the way they teach their classes because the dean thinks it will help retention (with no basis for believing this other than random anecdotes).  Or in geology, my field, that a dean, college president, or trustee will decide that I am not being fair by teaching about how fossils support biological evolution and not intelligent design (or, even worse, young-earth creationism and Noah's flood).  "Dean Dad", with no particular academic background in math, does not trust that his colleagues with PhDs in math are teaching it correctly.  It's perfectly acceptable for "Dean Dad" to have discussions with his math faculty about student retention and remedial math education, it's definitely not his place to try and get them to sacrifice academic standards to get there (which is how the math professors are going to view such interference).

Another point.  Math isn't arithmetic.  High school math is basically the minimum you need to know to get by in society (I wish they'd teach more statistics so people were able to think more critically about them when they're quoted in the media or advertising).  College mathematics is an academic subject - not job or life-skills training.  You do need to know the rules of arithmetic to understand mathematics, just as you need to know the alphabet and how to spell words before you can write essays, but much of math is symbolic, not numeric.  College-level math and science professors want to get students away from "What's the formula so I can plug in numbers and get a numeric answer on my calculator?" to understanding the problem and deriving a generic formula to obtain the information you need (without even using numbers).

I like what Chad Orzel wrote about "Dean Dad's" post over at his Uncertain Principles blog...

I think it's reasonably accurate to say that the notion that math at the college level involves calculators is rather like the belief that history at the college level is about memorizing the names of the kings of England, or that English at the college level is about parts of speech and metrical forms, or that economics at the college level is about learning to balance your checkbook.

At some point, overreliance on a calculator becomes a hinderance in the learning and understanding of math and science.  I think "Dean Dad" is dreaming if he thinks allowing calculators in math classes will increase student retention at his institution.  He just needs to look around at other institutions, like our NYS community college which allows calculators, to see that our retention of math students is just as bad.

I think I do know the reason for the retention problem but no one likes talking about it.  As a community college, we're an open door institution - pay the money and come on in.  I think that's one of the greatest things about our country - everyone has a chance to succeed and get an education.  The problem, however, is that not everyone has the ability or is motivated enough, for whatever reason, to earn a college diploma.  The administrators want to increase enrollment and retention while tenured faculty members like me want to uphold academic standards - even if it means people will flunk out and never return.  This is another reason to support tenure, by the way, without academic standards, college diplomas become truly worthless.  Those two goals are sometimes mutually exclusive.

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