by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Shannon Watkins of the Martin Center focuses on American students’ disappointing record on math tests.
When it comes to math performance, the United States has a pitiful record. Each year, about 1 million students enroll in college algebra and about 50 percent of those students fail to earn a “C” or better.
And according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. considerably underperforms in high school math on an international level. In the OECD’s 2018 Program for International Student Assessment, the United States was outperformed by 36 countries, including China, Russia, Italy, France, Finland, Poland, and Canada.
In North Carolina, 26 percent of UNC system students earned a “D,” “F,” or “W” (a withdrawal) in mathematics and statistics courses between fall 2015 and spring 2018.
But instead of investigating ways to improve math education, North Carolina university leaders have decided to create alternate “pathways” for students who are less math-minded. According to UNC administrators, gateway and entry-level math courses—like college algebra—are “stumbling blocks” for too many students.
To get more students through entry-level math classes, in early 2018, the UNC system established the UNC System Math Pathways Task Force, a system-wide initiative to change general education math requirements to make them more “applicable and equitable.”
But, like so many of the initiatives the academic staff in the system office push forward, the Math Pathways task force’s recommendations are a de facto lowering of standards.
Of course, UNC’s academic staff don’t see the proposed changes as a lowering of standards. They argue that classes like college algebra simply don’t “align” with many students’ career goals. Why, for example, should drama or history students have to grapple with something as “irrelevant” as algebra?
According to the UNC system’s website, the Math Pathways project “originated with a desire to take a broad, thoughtful look at how students were moving through their mathematics courses of study.”