"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Friday, May 10, 2013

Numeracy and Literacy for Higher Education

A decade ago, I was asked to give a talk to high school teachers in the District of Columbia. The talk was primarily to give an idea of how high school chemistry teachers could help prepare their students for a General Chemistry class in college. I told them to help their students with "ratio and proportion", "drawing and analyzing graphs", and "generally making sense out of numbers and measurements". I told the teachers that I could help my students in General Chemistry learn chemistry, but if the students were weak with numbers and text, that would be seriously problematic.

Recently, I received a comment with regard to one of the articles posted in this blog from a group in Facebook. The person who made the comment is currently a professor at the University of the Philippines. The professor wrote, " I get to teach them when they are fresh from basic education. There is a problem with numeracy and literacy even from those who attended schools for the rich... ...Not completely ready to tackle some foundation undergraduate courses in the sciences and mathematics. A lack of communication skills is observed." 

Georgetown University is among the most selective in admission in the US. Students in the General Chemistry courses that I have taught are no doubt among the very best in the country. Less selective colleges especially community colleges in the US are less fortunate. Instructors in these institutions are more likely to face situations similar to what the professor in the Philippines observes. Now, if someone proposes that the solution to this problem is to introduce the foundation undergraduate courses from higher education into basic education, that proposal would be deemed as simply wrong-headed. It is wrong headed based on one obvious reason. It is not addressing the problem. Addressing the lack of numeracy and literacy skills by creating two senior years in high school composed of these foundation undergraduate courses only transfers the problem from college to high school. It obviously does not solve the problem.

Solving the problem requires addressing it. This in turn commands an understanding of what the problem really is. The problem does lie in basic education. The problem is a lack of numeracy and literacy skills. Thus, transferring the college courses into high school does not really address the problem in the first place. Using high school to prepare for college or a career is only possible after identifying what skills are exactly necessary to be fit for either higher education or a vocation. "What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready?" is the title of a new report from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) in the US:

Visit http://www.ncee.org/college-and-work-ready/ to read the full report
This report examines the first year curriculum of community colleges in the US. A Masters degree in the teaching field is a minimum requirement for faculty in these colleges although in places like Northern Virginia, a significant fraction of the instructors hold doctorate degrees. Examining a US report on community colleges is probably more relevant than looking at research universities in the US for the purpose of gauging the situation in the Philippines. In so many ways, community colleges in the US are more similar to universities in the Philippines. For one, algebra is taught in US community colleges while there is no algebra in US universities. About half of undergraduate students in the US enroll in community colleges. These colleges offer associate degrees as well as courses that are credited in universities thus potentially reducing the total costs of tuition and time in a university. The report above by the NCEE in fact strikes chords similar to what the professor at the University of  Philippines says. Here is their summary of their findings:

Key Findings 
• Many college programs demand little or no mathematics
• Mathematics needed is mostly middle school mathematics
• Students command of middle school mathematics concepts is weak
• Don’t rush through middle school mathematics; Master Algebra I by sophomore year
• Algebra II not a prerequisite for success in community college or in most careers; high
schools should abandon requirement that all high school students take it
• Mathematical modeling, statistics and probability, complex measurement, schematics and  geometric visualization needed in many community college programs but not now taught in most schools
• Mathematics tested in community colleges falls far short of what is in students’ textbooks and short of what they need in careers they have chosen 
• College texts written at 11th -12th grade levels; most high school graduates cannot
understand them
• College instructors reducing material in the textbooks to Power Points, videos and flash cards
• Reading that is required demands little more than searching for basic facts
• Most college courses require very little writing
• Most community college tests involve little complex thinking—and no writing
• Industry courses rarely require students to do the kind of writing required of workers in
the industry for which they are training
• Community college students need better instruction in constructing arguments and in
laying out their thinking logically and persuasively. Such writing is essential in many
The problems appear to be present in both phases of education. The standards in community colleges are poor while high school fails to cover what is really necessary for college or work. College education should not be relaxing its standards just to meet the poor education students have received from high school. Admission to college should not be a given just because a student has finished high school. With no admission requirements except a high school diploma, colleges become a place for remediation and not higher education. Students must be held responsible for the preparation they need to pursue higher education. Basic education is a right but higher education should only be offered to those who worked hard enough to prepare.

The problem in high school stems from a lack of focus on the foundations of learning. Students should not be rushed into higher levels without mastery of elementary courses. Mathematics at the middle school level (Grades 6-8 in the US K-12 system) is very important yet high schools tend to focus on higher math courses. Students are forced to go through these more advanced math courses without mastery of elementary and middle school math. A similar scenario holds for literacy.

It appears that in response to the poor numeracy and literacy skills of students, community colleges have diluted their foundation courses in math and english. Evidently, moving these foundation courses to high school is not the answer. Demoting these foundation courses into remedial ones betrays the true purpose of higher education. The solution lies in strengthening the middle school years and ensuring that students do cover and master basic mathematics. Thus, the report concludes:
The nation may have to learn to walk before it runs, which means that it is important, first, to enable our high school students to meet the current very low standards before we ratchet those standards up. 
If this is the advice for America, should the advice for the Philippines be any different?

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