'Adding it Up' Part 3: Teaching Math Means Breaking It Down

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The latest numbers show that just about a third of the city’s 4th graders -- and even fewer 8th graders -- were considered proficient on this year’s national math exam. As students progress through the educational system, weak math skills take their toll. And, community colleges are feeling the pressure. The schools have open enrollment, and on many campuses most of the students take remedial math. WNYC’s Beth Fertig has been profiling a remedial math class at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College this semester. In this third installment she looks at the role of teaching.

What was your experience learning math? How were your math teachers? Tell us about it on our News Blog and read more about Professor Perez’s math class.

VICTOR: They’re trying to confuse you, there’s no fractions in that. It’s still early December, but final exams have already started at LaGuardia Community College. Danielle Alba and Victor Lopez just took part 1 of the final for remedial algebra. They talk about it while eating breakfast in a basement classroom.

DANIELLE: I don’t think I had that question. VICTOR: X, X over X plus 2 plus, um. DANIELLE Oh it’s not none of the above? VICTOR: Yeah. DANIELLE: Alright, cool.

Lopez and Alba are both in their 20s. Each did poorly in math during high school, but they’re now getting good marks.

DANIELLE: Yeah I got up early and practiced for it so it’s fresh. I passed.

Not everyone did so well, however. When Professor Jorge Perez joins the class a few minutes later, he tells them he’s disappointed that only 3 students passed.

PEREZ: I have no doubt in my mind that everybody sitting here could perfectly pass the test. No doubt. You’re not doing the work that’s supposed to be done.

Originally, 32 students registered for Perez’s class. But many left around the time of the midterm and now just 19 are registered. Perez says this is typical because so many community college students work and have families to support. And math can be especially tricky, even scary.

PEREZ: It’s a language. But as any language it has a grammar and it has syntax. And the students wants to do mathematics without paying attention to the grammar and the syntax. They want to get the answer no matter how they arrived to that answer, that’s what they want. And they never ask themselves is this the right answer.

Perez pushes his students to feel the grammar and syntax of this foreign language.

STUDENT: A squared

He’ll break down a problem into separate parts so they can apply the rules consistently. In one long equation, he discovers a common error. Some students have confused A times A with 2A.

VANESSA: So it’s A squared. Which was my first answer in the beginning. (laughs) Really. PEREZ: I know. I know. You wrote A squared the first time and then you changed it. Why did you changed it? VANESSA: I wasn’t’ sure. PEREZ: Exactly because the connection that you have in your brain about A times A being A squared is so weak.

The students seem to appreciate this guidance.. even if they still struggle with it. Twenty-year-old Jesus Espinoza says he understands math much more than he did in high school.

ESPINOZA: I went to Aviation High School. And the professor there she didn’t explain as much as he did. Like he goes through, like, the steps that in your head you should skip. And he goes through everything very, very detailed. Like if you’re going to add something he does it, like 1 plus 1. Over there it’s like you already know it so she doesn’t even put it on the board.

Of course, students like Espinoza who are doing well in this community college class may be more serious than they were in high school. It’s different when you’re paying tuition. But since these are high school graduates who scored too low on their math Regents for regular college algebra, that does raise questions about their preparation. Especially in the lower grades, because elementary teachers rarely major in math.

POSAMENTIER: I’m shocked if they would ever say I liked math best. They don’t.

Alfred Posamentier is a professor of math education and former dean of the education school at City College.

POSAMENTIER: It’s art, it’s music, it’s history, it’s maybe literature and so on. And these folks have a great influence on kids.

In the middle and high school grades, teachers do need to be certified in math. But nationally, it’s tough getting highly qualified teachers in math and science. Talented college students tend to pursue more lucrative professions. And those who do get certified to teach math often aren’t prepared very well, says Linda Curtis Bey, the director of math and science education for New York City.

BEY: Algebra at the college level is not necessarily the same algebra course that you’re taking in high school, and it’s not taught necessarily with the depth of understanding that’s going to allow you to turn around and teach that class yourself.

The city is working with CUNY on improving professional development for teachers. Chancellor Joel Klein would also like to pay math and science teachers more – though the union opposes this.

But it’s not just an issue of teaching. A handful of math department chairs at CUNY wrote a report claiming the state standards don’t focus enough on core topics in algebra and geometry that are critical for success in college. Others claim the standards are fine, it’s the state exams that need to be fixed.

PEREZ: Did you get one? STUDENT: Yeah I just got stuck.. Meanwhile, about three quarters of the city’s high school grads who enroll in community colleges at CUNY need remedial classes. And for most of them, it’s math. Which is why passing the class will require a new mindset.

PEREZ: Can you simplify that?

Twenty-three year old Danielle Alba had a lot of trouble with math in high school, which she attributes to dyslexia and bad teaching. She’s says she’s succeeding now because she finally gets it.

ALBA: He tells you why the rules are important, you know what I mean. Instead of just saying memorize this. There’s a reason. Cause there’s a reason to the rules so why not know them?

But with the second half of the final scheduled for next week, other students are still struggling. Elizabeth Rodriguez and Damarys Angulo are frustrated because they’re doing fine in their other classes. Rodriguez tries to explain.

RODRIGUEZ: We don’t think of math, like, the way we think of other subjects. You know what I mean. And at the end it is. It’s just thinking. But we’re so focused on getting the answer that we don’t think.

ANGULO: Math is about a way of thinking. Some people got it, some people don’t that’s it.


RODRIGUEZ: No it’s the discipline, it goes back to the discipline...

Professor Jorge Perez has heard these arguments before. He’s been teaching math at LaGuardia since 1982. From his experience, most of the students who are still enrolled at this point will pass – if only because they care enough to do the work.

PEREZ: And they are going to do the work that they didn’t do throughout the semester. They are going to study really hard. So that’s another concern for me because. Are they learning?

Are they learning? We’ll come back to that question after next week’s final exam. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.