Wendy Pedroso has never liked math, but for most of elementary and middle school she got B’s in the subject.

It wasn’t until ninth grade at Miami Southwest Senior High School, when Pedroso took algebra, that she hit a wall, struggling particularly with fractions.

She sought help from tutors, took algebra again over the summer and passed.

She went on to graduate from high school in 2011 and enrolled at Miami Dade College’s campus in Kendall. Like all of Florida’s community and state colleges, Miami Dade accepts anyone with a high school diploma or G.E.D. But students must take a placement test to assess basic skills.

Pedroso’s earlier struggles caught up with her: She failed the math section.

It meant that she had to take a remedial math class. The course cost $300 like any other MDC class but did not count as credit toward graduation. She could not begin taking college-level courses in math until she passed the remedial course.

Pedroso was embarrassed.

“I thought that it was going to be very hard to get through college,” she said.

Across Florida, remedial classes at community and state colleges are full with students like Pedroso. More than half the high school graduates who took the college placement test had to take at least one remedial class. And while many struggle with basic reading and writing skills, the subject they’re most unprepared for in college is math.

In the 2010-11 school year, some 125,042 Florida college students needed to take a remedial math class, an investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida has found. That number is more than double the number requiring remedial classes in reading (54,489) or writing (50,906).

Much of the growth in remedial math classes comes from students age 20 and over, who have gone to college amid a tough job market. Far removed from the math drills of their youth, their basic skills have gone rusty.

But the math crisis also is acute among students coming straight out of high school. Some 44 percent of high school graduates who took the Florida College System’s entrance exam failed the math section in 2010-11. Less than a third failed in reading and writing.

“I don’t know what happened with these people that come from high school,” said Isis Casanova de Franco, an MDC remedial math professor.

Casanova de Franco said her granddaughter in second grade can add but many of her college students cannot.

“It’s very difficult to understand that they don’t even know how to add or subtract whole numbers.”

A national problem

The situation in Florida is similar to what’s happening across the United States. A 2010 Columbia University study of 57 community colleges in seven states found that one in two incoming students needed to take remedial math courses.

Another study by Harvard University researchers looked around the world. It found that only 32 percent of U.S. high school students graduating in 2011 were proficient in math. Of 65 nations that participated in the Harvard survey, the U.S. ranked 32nd.

Vinton Gray Cerf, an Internet entrepreneur quoted in the Harvard report, said the U.S. is not producing enough innovators because of a deteriorating K-12 education system. He also blamed a national culture that doesn’t value engineering and science.

The culture problem won’t be easy to solve. A number of Florida college students interviewed for this series, including Wendy Pedroso, quickly volunteered that they “hate” math. Many state public school students never master basic math skills early in their education, causing them to struggle throughout their educational career.

Jakeisha Thompson, an MDC math instructor at the downtown Miami campus, sees it every day.

Many of them have had a hatred for math for as long as they can remember,” Thompson said. “And it goes all the way back to elementary school.”

‘A creative discipline’

One answer lies in re-thinking how math is taught in K-12 schools, experts say. Math is a challenging subject that requires critical-thinking skills — traits not often emphasized and developed in the U.S. public school system, unlike in China and Japan.

How teachers approach math lessons also is crucial, because they need to make lessons interesting to engage students and help them succeed. Teaching techniques such as memorization and repetition have contributed to math’s reputation as a dreadful subject in the U.S., said Richard Rusczyk, founder of Art of Problem Solving, a California school that focuses on creating interactive educational opportunities for avid math students.

“Math is a creative discipline,” Rusczyk said. “It’s not fun if you have to memorize it, and that way it’s not easy to learn.”

Rusczyk said many students who struggle with math throughout their K-12 careers never mastered the basic skills.

“Sometimes it’s not algebra but the fact that the student never learned how to deal with fractions,” he said.

The use of calculators in classrooms is part of the problem. Students are allowed to use calculators when taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT – the test they must pass to graduate.

Many students are using calculators before they’ve mastered basic math skills, said Casanova de Franco, the MDC remedial math professor.

 “Calculators are good when you know how to do everything,” Casanova de Franco said. “But it shouldn’t be used to supplement thinking.”

 Also, high school math programs are not geared toward college readiness. The FCAT, for example, tests only 10th-grade level math skills. The Florida Department of Education says a new test coming in a couple of years will be more aligned to college standards. This is the last year students will be allowed to graduate without taking more advanced classes.

 But Katerine Santana, who teaches Algebra 2 at Miami Northwestern Senior High, says that alone won’t solve the problem.

 Like professor Casanova de Franco, she said many of her students can’t add or subtract. This poses a challenge for math teachers because students who have fallen behind and lack foundational skills tend to lose interest.

 “Early on, if we instill that math is part of our daily life, I think that kids are going to have more of a positive attitude towards it,” Santana said.


Source: St. Augustine Record – http://goo.gl/3mUwq