The Scrambled Math Mess for College Freshmen

Having prior experience teaching in colleges and having numerous recent conversations with college instructors, my conclusion is that little has changed yet at the college level with the Common Core math standards (CCSS-M) in place.  Far too many students still enroll in their first college math course (whatever that may be) lacking many of the expected algebra skills.  Interestingly enough, those who teach high school calculus are telling me they see the same problem with many of the honors students they have.  Two issues seem to chain our students to the aged pattern of academic crisis:

  • misunderstanding of the purpose of CCSS Algebra 2 and 4th year high school course work and
  • misunderstanding of what students need to be successful at upper levels.

College professors often gaze downward and conclude high school math classes must be full of fluff.  High school teachers look up and think, “More students need memorize more procedures.”  What the college professors are most concerned about is the disabling confusion of routine algebra skills.  High school teachers who hear such things know that students have been drilled with algebra and wonder if someone is trying to dumb down the curriculum.  But what if Algebra 2 courses and above consisted of rich application of fundamental , extensible algebra skills and stretching those skills in more abstract ways instead of adding lists of  procedures and theorems to memorize (and confuse)?  What if Algebra 2 regularly included applications that are interesting for older teens and that help them understand the reason for learning to apply algebra?  The CCSS-M writers had that vision when they wrote, and there are many opportunities in the high school CCSS-M to make that happen.  However, until college and high school educators begin communicating, there will likely remain a huge disconnect that keeps our students from being more successful at college.

As my instructional practices have evolved, my classroom observations confirm much of what I have been reading in research. Students are capable of developing serious problem solving skills through application of the CCSS-M modeling standards.   Colleges and high schools need to begin talking to each other to better understand what the CCSS-M are actually developing in those last few years of high school so that we can help students reach academic and career goals.


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