'Adding It Up' Part 1: Confronting Math Fear

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Community colleges serve almost half of all college students in the nation. Graduation rates are low - hovering around 30 percent after three years - and a majority of students need remedial help, especially in math. This is the case in New York City where community colleges are seeing a huge influx of new students. This semester, WNYC’s Beth Fertig is visiting a remedial class at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, to see why math is such an obstacle.

REPORTER: It’s difficult to hide your fear in professor Jorge Perez’s classroom.

PEREZ: How many of you are in fear when you talk about mathematics?

REPORTER: The class looks hesitant.

PEREZ: Raise your hand. The majority of you are in fear, OK. So this is something that I really want you to relax when you are in my class.

REPORTER: The 29 students in this remedial algebra class need encouragement. They all failed an assessment test that’s required before they can take certain college courses. Incoming students who score at least a 75 on their high school Math Regents or above 480 on the SAT don’t have to take the assessment. But most of these students were never that strong in math.

MAHNKEN: Math was one of my worst subjects.

REPORTER: Dylan Mahnken is pretty typical.

MAHNKEN: And I also had teachers back in the day that weren’t really too, um, patient.

REPORTER: Mahnken is 35, and he returned to school this fall because he’s hoping to change careers. He says he managed security for the loading dock of a big building and now wants to become a veterinary technician.

One of his classmates is 23 year old Kaisha Pile. She’s taken remedial algebra twice before. She says she dropped out the first time around because she didn’t understand the teacher; and the second time there were family crises.

PILE: I’m eager to get it completed, get it over. it because this is like one of the main classes that’s holding me back from moving into my clinical phase for my major which is physical therapy.

REPORTER: Pile is among 17 students in this class who have taken remedial algebra at least once before. The course is the rough equivalent of ninth and tenth grade math. Another remedial class covers earlier material.

Community colleges prefer to call these “developmental education courses”. At LaGuardia, eighty percent of students take a developmental class in either reading, writing or math. That wouldn’t happen at a four year college or university.

But community colleges like CUNY typically have an open admissions policy. Professor Perez says they attract non-traditional students who have been out of school for a long time or had to go back and get a GED.

PEREZ: Some of these students are making a tremendous effort just to attend classes. They have to work, they have full time work. They’re full time students, they’re full time mothers, on top of that they have to commute, pay the rent, make sure they’re getting enough money to pay the bills.

REPORTER: Perez is 65, with thick graying brown hair and deep set eyes. He’s been teaching at LaGuardia since 1982 and typically splits his time between college level and remedial classes. He has a doctorate in mathematics education from Teachers College at Columbia University, and didn’t want to go back to his native Chile because of the political situation. Perez remembers being shocked when he encountered his first remedial class.

PEREZ: Oh my God. Oh my God how do I do this?! I was teaching four basic operations. Addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. Some of our students do not have a full command of multiplication time tables.

REPORTER: For the first three classes of the semester, Perez goes over those basic operations with variables: mystery numbers represented by X or Y.

PEREZ: OK, 4x minus 29 equals 132?

REPORTER: The class starts at 8 a.m., twice a week, so the students are still groggy. Some like Dylan Mahnken, who lives in the Bronx, have commuted an hour to get here. They copy the equations in their notebooks and Perez stops by to check their work.

PEREZ: You have five X what do you want to go?

REPORTER: Mahnken appears stuck on 5x equals negative 45.

PEREZ: You want to get X by itself right? And to get X by itself what do you need to produce? DYLAN: Negative five? PEREZ: No, no. Let me show you something on the board...

REPORTER: Perez tells his students they’ll do fine if they remember rules like a negative times a positive makes a negative. And he repeats his mantra that learning is a process of reflection. He even gives out a list of adjectives including "anger", "doubt", "ashamed", and "suffering". This is to help the students express themselves when writing short journal entries about each class.

PEREZ: Yeah we have a solution here, a very nice solution.

REPORTER: The class meets on Mondays and Wednesdays for a total of six hours including a lab. Near the end of the third session, Perez notices that Kaisha Pile is struggling with an equation. He wants her to talk about it.

PEREZ: Are you feeling insecure?

PILE: Hmmm.


PILE: A little bit.

PEREZ: Yeah but why are you feeling insecure? Tell me what is this?

PILE: Four minus four.

PEREZ: Which is?

PILE: Zero.

PEREZ: Are you still insecure?

PILE: Okay.

PEREZ: Huh, how are feeling now?

PILE: Better.

PEREZ: Better, that’s good.

REPORTER: Although this is Pile’s third attempt at remedial algebra, she says she isn’t discouraged. She’s more annoyed that she can’t move ahead with other courses like biology until she completes it.

PILE: Class is class. I see it as something I have to do. I want to graduate, I want to get my degree so I have to do it.

REPORTER: But Dylan Mahnken is more shaken. At 35, he’s been out of school longer than Pile.

MAHNKEN: If you could have seen the big question mark that was over my head. I don’t know. I don’t like being in a classroom situation because sometimes it seems like you’re too rushed. Like when I’m at home and looking at this type of stuff, I'm much more comfortable, cause I can get up, have a cup of coffee, you know. I can stop what I’m doing and walk the dog or something like that, take a breather.

REPORTER: In his 27 years at LaGuardia Community College, Jorge Perez has seen countless students like Kaisha Pile and Dylan Mahnken. 68 percent pass remedial algebra. But he knows they still face long odds. Only 22 percent of Laguardia’s students graduate in five years. Yet, Perez enjoys the challenge of working at a community college.

PEREZ: I’m priviledged. I’m priviledged in the sense that I have the opportunity to help these people who really have an honest desire of learning.

REPORTER: And for those who think they can skate by, Perez has this piece of advice: CUNY makes it easy to get into a community college. But you still have to work for the degree. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.

We’ll be following Professor Perez’s class throughout the semester in our series, Adding It Up. You can meet some of his students and learn more about remedial math on our news blog.

This report was compiled with assistance from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University.