LETTER: Further thoughts on remedial math education

Tuesday, December 22, 2009 | 5:15 p.m. CST

I appreciate the interest in the issue of mathematics education, and helping students be prepared for math in college, indicated by the recent article ("College remedial math courses still needed," Dec. 17). I think it might be helpful to add a few details. (I should make it clear that while I was quoted in the article I am not in any way a spokesman for others on this issue.)

(a) The recommendation that the development and evaluation of curricula involve professional scientific oversight is not mine, but comes from the National Mathematics Assessment Panel report. This panel was remarkable for its breadth of perspective. It was a group with representatives across the spectrum with experience and expertise in different facets of the issue, including those directly in contact with K-12 students (teachers, principals), Board of Education members, professors of education (including those specializing in math education), math professors and psychologists who study how children learn and how to assess that. Their report is available on the Department of Education's Web site , and I urge everyone who is interested in math education to look at it.

(b) While there are very real problems, it is important to recognize that everyone concerned is trying to make the system better. Teachers work very hard, and many of them achieve remarkable results; school systems do their best to help. Parents and students spend a great deal of time and energy on this. The question is how to use all of that effort and good will.

(c) A main point of the letter that math faculty wrote was that it would be good to have very clear and specific standards for what students should know and be able to use. There ought not to be any surprises about what students need when they get to college — and, math being cumulative, that has implications for the K-12 curriculum.

(d) While Columbia is a town with a lot of university input into the local K-12 system, we need to remember that many students come from smaller and less well-off communities. Parents, students, teachers and school boards in those communities want their students to have as many opportunities for success as anyone else. If we can give clear guidelines for what the students should know in order to be prepared, these communities can figure out how to best achieve this for their students.

Adam Helfer is a math professor at MU.



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Ellis Smith December 23, 2009 | 2:32 p.m.

I could not agree more with the concept of having clear, specific standards where mathematics is concerned.

Students - and middle school is not too soon for prospective college/university students and their parents to start searching - should familiarize themselves with college requirements for the curricula the students believe they may pursue. Today it is possible to go to a college or university web site and, with some searching within that web site, obtain information on the mathematics requirements for admission to a specific program and also the mathematics courses required to complete college graduation requirements.

Often at this stage of things the student is unsure of what program they may pursue. Then look at multiple programs, noting the similarities and differences between them.

For engineering it is even better: programs are established and monitored by ABET, and graduation requirements for a BS degree in any given program are very similar and usually identical as far as mathematics requirements are concerned. To obtain a BS degree in Chemical Engineering at MU, Missouri S&T or Purdue or Georgia Tech would have the same mathematics requirement.

You can then gauge the mathematics requirements for entry into any program against what is available to be taught at your local high school. That way you may incur some disappointments with local offerings, but you won't have nasty surprises upon graduating from high school.

It is a sad situation to see a high school graduate with good grades and proper motivation who decides he/she wants to become a scientist or engineer - but lacks the proper mathematics and science background. College is expensive enough without having to add costs and time spent on remedial instruction.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 23, 2009 | 8:56 p.m.

Joe, I would also point out that some schools (at least when I was preparing to enter college) don't offer some of the intro classes one might expect. For instance, my small-town high school did not offer a calculus class - hopefully this has changed since then. We had what would be considered a pre-calc class (I forget the exact term, analytic geometry might have been one semester's worth). Myself and another student ended up taking Math 80 (Calc I) at Mizzou during our senior year to get ahead of the game a bit. This kept me from having to take the "where should you go" math test when I enrolled as a freshman.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith December 24, 2009 | 11:37 a.m.

Good point, John Schultz, and correct: not all high schools offer the prerequisite courses. I too had a problem, and I grew up in a city with five public high schools.

My point is that for prospective college students there is a lot of information a student and his/her parents can glean from sitting down at a home PC and making a survey of what colleges and universities have to say.

Engineering is a particularly good case in point because curricula are nationally set by ABET: entrance requirements for any branch of engineering are going to be the same regardless of the specific college or university. This will also apply to verifying the high school science courses needed.

While it may be difficult to obtain all prerequisite courses at some high schools, at least the student and his/her parents will be aware of any shortfalls well before high school completion.

(Report Comment)

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