Posts published in October, 2013

US Adults Lag Behind Other Countries in Skills Test

American adults did poorly in mathematical and technical skills compared to their counterparts in most developed countries, according to an international report. Young American adults lagged behind their international competitors in math and technology, but also in literacy. “This report underscores the importance of investing in adult education in the U.S.,” said Martin Finsterbusch, president of the National Coalition for Literacy. “We must give adults the opportunity to improve their literacy, numeracy, and technology skills.” (OECD)

Should College Statistics Courses Substitute For Intermediate Algebra ?


By Pamela Burdman

Community college students who transfer to four-year universities as juniors should meet the minimum requirements for entering high schools students, shouldn’t they?

 While that doesn’t sound like a controversial proposition, it has become one in the realm of remedial mathematics where a move to redesign the community college math sequence is colliding with the expectations of four-year university admissions offices.Experiments at community colleges around the country to realign remedial math requirements to better prepare students for their intended majors and career pathways are yielding early success, raising questions about the long-standing assumption that intermediate algebra is essential for success in college. These experiments are especially salient because of the high proportion of community college students requiring remedial math courses and the low proportion who succeed in them. 

My new report, Changing Equations: How Community Colleges Are Re-Thinking College Readiness in Math, published by LearningWorks, highlights these experiments and the positive results to date. 

 Defying traditional assumptions, the colleges conducting these experiments are substituting statistics and quantitative reasoning for a second year of algebra in the case of students who are not pursuing majors in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). The reasoning is that most of intermediate algebra is designed to prepare students for pre-calculus and calculus, and is therefore not needed by students who don’t need to take calculus. Rather, they are more likely to need applied mathematical knowledge and skills to succeed in other disciplines.

 Early results are proving that reasoning sound, showing that students in the new pathways are doing better in college-level courses than students taking the traditional intermediate algebra curriculum.  In fact, they are achieving double to triple the success rate in college-level statistics in less time. 

 Proponents argue that the statistics- and quantitative reasoning-based pathways are just as rigorous as the algebra-based pathways, and far more relevant for most students’ college and career plans.  In fact, outside the STEM fields, there is little data to back up the long-standing assumption that intermediate algebra is necessary for a college-educated person. Research shows that only about 20 to 30 percent of workers with a Bachelor’s degree use it in their careers.

About a quarter of California’s 112 community colleges are trying these approaches, as are numerous colleges in at least a dozen other states.  But despite their promise, the experiments will be difficult to continue if four-year universities refuse to allow the sequences for incoming transfer students. 

 This is where it gets tricky, both for four-year universities and, ultimately, K-12 schools.  Take the University of California.  Under the state’s “A-G” requirements, incoming freshmen must have taken three years of math, including elementary and intermediate algebra (also known as Algebra 1 and 2).  But under the new experiments, a community college student who places into remedial math can pass a pre-statistics course instead of intermediate algebra and then go straight to the statistics course that UC accepts for transfer. 

 The only hitch is UC’s stipulation that the statistics class is accepted for transfer only if the prerequisite for the class is intermediate algebra. The experiments buck this assumption by proving that intermediate algebra is not a prerequisite in the sense that students don’t need it to succeed in statistics. 

 Given the high demand for seats at their campuses, and the perception that intermediate algebra represents a high bar for rigor, UC faculty setting admissions standards have little incentive to compromise by waiving the prerequisite. But their position runs directly counter to efforts to improve college completion by eliminating unnecessary barriers to student success.

 For one thing, the policy curtails the transfer prospects of students pursuing the alternative math pathways.  For another, it makes colleges wary of offering these pathways at all, so even students who are not planning to transfer may lose access to them. 

 These data are quite new, and there will be far more available in the next few years as efforts in California, Texas, Colorado, and other states proceed.  But if the early results hold and students can be successful in college taking statistics and quantitative reasoning instead of intermediate algebra, universities such as UC may start to find their positions indefensible. 

 And that points ultimately to questions about the Common Core standards:  If college math requirements begin to change, what happens to those standards, whose claim to fame is that they define academic readiness for college?

 Some observers think that the Common Core math standards will eventually move in the same direction of de-emphasizing intermediate algebra. Others say that high school is too soon to close off students’ options. They argue for keeping the current high school math requirements for all students, and allowing college students, who after all are adults, to opt out of STEM-oriented math requirements.

 So stay tuned.  The equations may be changing for quite some time. 

Pamela Burdman is  a nationally-recognized education policy analyst and former program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She can be reached at

Definition of “Grit” Guides College Preparation

The word “grit” is ubiquitous in education today. It’s in the subtitle of New York Times contributing writer Paul Tough’s latest book, How Children Succeed. It’s one of the seven character traits (along with “zest,” “gratitude,” and others) that KIPP charter schools try to instill in their students. Tufts and DePaul University look for it when evaluating applicants. Like many buzzwords, “grit” doesn’t have a straightforward definition, but the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s description is a good place to start: “the habit of overcoming challenges, of learning from mistakes instead of being defeated by them.” Here’s a TED talk Duckworth gave earlier this year describing when she first realized the importance of grit, and what she sees as the next phase of grit studies: figuring out how to increase a person’s grittiness. The piece is in The Atlantic.

Source: Carnegie Foundation


Federal Government Should Stop Making Profit From Student Loans

The federal government should stop making profits from student loans, said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a leading consumer activist and advocate for student loan reform in Congress. Warren, citing a Congressional Budget Office report, said the government stands to bring in $51 billion in profits from student loans this year, a disputed … … Read entire article »

College Readiness: How To Utilize The Common Core

, Getting Ready for College, Careers, and the Common Core: What Every Educator Needs to Know. by David Conley(University Of Oregon) is written for all educators (with a spotlight on those at the secondary level). This important resource shows teachers and school leaders alike how they can get students ready for college and careers, while simultaneously preparing them for the Common Core assessments. Getting Ready for College, Careers, and the Common Core is based on numerous research studies conducted by education expert David T. Conley and insights gained from his work with dozens of effective high schools. The book offers techniques and strategies for teaching the Common Core State Standards in ways that result in improved learning for all students.

Coming in October 2013, the book is available for pre-order today!

How Women Negotiate The Pitfalls of Academic Life

This book is a five-year study of the women who shared a floor of a residence hall during their freshman year at a flagship US research university.  It provides an exceptionally vivid account of how different kinds of women negotiate the opportunities and pitfalls of undergraduate life in the contemporary academy.  Authors are sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong (Michigan) and Laura Hamilton (UC Merced). For more information:

Positive Mindset Leads To College Success

This book by Carol Dweck describes how a person’s mindset toward their brains and talent can affect their success. Through years of research, Dr. Dweck has found that individuals who have a “growth mindset” and believe that intelligence and talent are the product of hard work are more successful and enjoy learning more than individuals who believe that intelligence is a fixed trait.

Developing Persistence Skills in Students

Persistence is one of the metacognitive learning skills (Conley, Education Week) necessary for a successful transition to college or career. Here are several strategies for developing persistence skills among your students:

•    Assign projects that cannot be completed in one class period and that require students to persist to solve multifaceted problems. In assigning projects, provide appropriate scaffolding so that by the time students are seniors, they are capable of completing complex tasks independently.
•    Teach lessons on resiliency to help students reflect on how they learn and cope with stressful situations. Have students describe how they have handled unexpected difficulties in the past; have them present and share these strategies with the class. This will help students build a portfolio of strategies to rely on when an obstacle presents itself (e.g., should I work with my peers, ask the teacher for help?). This experience encourages students to ask for help or pursue different pathways to success when they may have otherwise given up or felt unsuccessful if they didn’t complete an assignment independently.
•    Build classroom practices that reward persistence (e.g., include credit for multiple drafts of work).
•    Have students set short-, medium-, and long-term goals and map out action steps to achieve those goals. This helps to instill that persistence is sustained effort over time, not solely a triumph over barriers.

See , for example, EPIC’s ThinkReady formative assessment tasks.


A Scheme To Reduce Need For College Loans

From New America Foundation:

Our national higher education finance system is built around the student loan. This year, the federal government issued over 20 million new student loans, and there is no indication that this number will drop moving forward. Approximately 6.5 million students are currently in default on their federal student loans and the combined debts of all students participating in the program now totals more than $1 trillion.

Loans, however, are only one of many ways of financing higher education – as a group of Oregon students recently pointed out. Their ‘Pay it Forward’ plan, which captured national attention, offered free tuition to all, with students promising to pay back a percentage of their earnings over a set number of years. The idea is to reduce risk: if you earn more in the future, you pay more; if you earn less, you pay less; and if you earn nothing, you pay nothing. They argued that system would be fairer, end the scourge of loan defaults, and ask more from those who gain the most from college.

Critics, on the other hand, wonder about the real costs of the program – and whether either a public or private sector funding model that eliminates loans would create the kind of results that Zero Education Debt proponents envisage. Will students end up paying more than they do now? Do these approaches only further encourage public divestment from higher education? Are private sector solutions, some of which are already operating in the market, a better approach than the public funding model being contemplated in Oregon? Are these various plans viable when scaled? 


The Effect Of Statewide Governing Boards On Political Action

Several states have reformed postsecondary governance by adjusting the powers and duties of state and system boards. This study evaluates the effect of consolidated governing boards on appropriations patterns and trends. The findings support the notion that statewide higher education governance structures buffer political actors from the constant lobbying of higher education institutions and interest groups. However, these boards also appear to increase significantly the influence that legislatures and governors have on state higher education budgeting. (New to the ECS Research Studies Database)