May 21, 2012

TCC looks to solve the problem of math readiness

Community colleges are revamping developmental programs -- formerly known as remedial -- to help more students become math-literate and viable in the workforce. School districts are also working to prepare more high school graduates for college math.

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Pat Cline says basic shop math is a must for workers at Iscar Metals in Arlington.

Some might argue that nothing about shop math is basic, since Iscar workers -- who make cutting tools for the machining industry -- must master not only addition and division but also trigonometry. Iscar workers must understand a little computer programming, too, which also takes math skills.

Bottom line: These shop workers need math to earn their paychecks.

"Everything that happens in life is pretty much a ratio of something," said Cline, a manager of special tooling services at Iscar.

Over the past 10 years, education experts, researchers and business leaders have stressed the need for better math education, while lawmakers, governors and presidents pushed for more math- and science-savvy students as well.

But the message is gaining more ground as Texas higher-education leaders document that many college students simply aren't ready to take college-level math.

In Texas, 54.6 percent of first-time students entering a two-year college were not considered college-ready, according to the 2012 Texas Public Higher Education Almanac.

At Tarrant County College, about 51 percent of the 8,238 first-time college students enrolled last fall needed to take developmental math.

Community colleges are revamping developmental programs -- formerly known as remedial -- to help more students become math-literate and viable in the workforce. School districts are also working to prepare more high school graduates for college math.

Experts and business leaders say that Texas won't be able to compete in the global marketplace unless it makes a revolutionary move.

"The real danger is that the jobs can't be filled by Texans and will leave Texas," said Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business. "That will hurt Texas."

Aligning math courses and student interests

Math skills aren't optional for the up-and-coming workforce, said Deborreh Wallace, customer relations manager for TMAC, a manufacturing extension program at the University of Texas at Arlington.

"It's not like you can come out of school not knowing math," Wallace said.

Della Williams, president and CEO of Williams-Pyro Inc. in Fort Worth, agrees. She said the nation needs students to graduate from universities and community colleges with an array of math literacy -- from engineers to machine operators who can make on-the-spot calculations. Williams said she supports efforts to improve instruction in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

"We wouldn't have a business if it weren't for math," said Williams, whose company develops aerospace components. Williams said a top complaint among employers is that job applicants have zero math skills.

The Charles A. Dana Center at UT Austin is developing a program that some describe as a game-changer.

The center is working on the New Mathways Project, a statewide initiative to create math courses and support services to help students earn college-level math credit faster. It would let students take math courses aligned with their majors and future jobs, said Amy Getz, program coordinator at the Dana Center. "People have different interests," Getz said. "They have different needs."

The project's proposed statistics pathway would teach arithmetic, algebra and statistics needed for humanities or social sciences. Another pathway, called quantitative literacy, would offer general math while demonstrating how it is relevant in the professional, civic and personal arenas.

A third pathway would focus on STEM-related majors and would lead to Calculus 1.

The project, which will be developed over the next year, "is not easier," Getz said. "People are going to work hard. This is so they come out with knowledge and skills that are really valuable for them."

Getz said the project will collaborate with Texas colleges and aims to complement efforts already under way.

Steve Johnson, associate vice president at the Texas Association of Community Colleges in Austin, said current developmental math instruction isn't tailored to students' needs, which can be frustrating. "The concern that our institutions see is that it is limiting student success," Johnson said.

TCC, school district work to close the gaps

The word trigonometry has the power to intimidate.

Experts say too many high school students, college students and even adults long out of college sweat at the mere mention of it.

Rick Garcia, TCC's associate vice chancellor for college readiness and educational foundations, said this attitude can be a barrier in developmental math.

Garcia said TCC is addressing it by teaching how and when certain math principles are needed.

Garcia said collaborative research with the Fort Worth school district also indicates that some students struggle to get into college-level math because they are out of practice -- the placement test is administered long after they take Algebra 1.

The numbers tell them that something must be done.

In Tarrant County, 24 percent of students enrolled in public higher education in fall 2010 didn't meet the state standard for math college readiness, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Thirty to 40 percent of students from the Fort Worth, Everman and Kennedale districts needed developmental math.

TCC has received state and federal grants aimed at improving developmental math courses. It now has three levels: In the first, students learn content typically covered in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The second is aligned with Algebra 1. The third is similar to Algebra 2, typically taken by juniors in high school.

Garcia said TCC has been working with the Fort Worth district to figure out how to close the gaps.

The district is creating a summer program for juniors and seniors to review skills needed for college placement tests, such as Accuplacer.

The four-hour course is expected to target about 800 students, said Shannon Hernandez, the district's director of secondary mathematics.

"We are working really hard to level the playing field for all students," she said.

Technology trends have had such an influence in recent years that the need for math-literate high school and college graduates can't be ignored, Hernandez said.

"We are really trying to make sure that we teach students to think critically, analytically and to problem-solve. It's not just about the numbers," she said.

High school students need to know why the math rules exist, which is different from past math teaching in which lessons did not delve deeper into the foundations of math and its relevance to the world, she said.

Hernandez used the new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Dallas as an example. "Those were mathematicians who figured out that we can drive across it without it falling," she said.

Staff writer Eva-Marie Ayala contributed to this report.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianestar

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