Wendy Pedroso has never liked math, but for most of elementary school and middle school she got B’s in the subject. It wasn’t until ninth grade at Miami Southwest Senior High School, when Pedroso took algebra, that she hit a wall. In particular, she struggled with understanding fractions.
“I kept getting stuck in the same place,” Pedroso, 20, recalled recently. She failed the class, and worried that she’d never get to go to college. Pedroso sought help from tutors, took algebra again over the summer and passed. She went on to graduate from high school in 2011.
Pedroso enrolled at Miami Dade College’s campus in Kendall. Like all of Florida’s community and state colleges, Miami Dade accepts anyone with a high school diploma or G.E.D. But students must take a placement test to assess their basic skills. Pedroso’s struggles with math caught up with her again: She failed the math section of the test.
It meant that she had to take a remedial math class. The course cost Pedroso $300 like any other class at Miami Dade College but did not count as credit toward graduation. Although she could take college-level courses in other subjects, Pedroso couldn’t begin taking college-level courses in math until she passed the remedial course.
Pedroso was embarrassed.
“I thought that it was going to be very hard to get through college,” she said.
Across Florida, remedial classes at community and state colleges are full with students like Pedroso. More than half of the high school graduates who took the college placement test had to take at least one remedial class. And while many of those students struggle with basic reading and writing skills, the subject they’re most unprepared for in college is math.
In the 2010-11 school year, some 125,042 Florida college students needed to take a remedial math class, an investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida has found. That number has been growing for some time, and is more than double the number requiring remedial classes in reading (54,489) or writing (50,906).
Much of the growth in remedial math classes comes from students age 20 and over, who have gone to college amid a tough job market. Far removed from the math drills of their youth, their basic skills have gone rusty, if they had them to begin with.
But the math crisis is also acute among students coming to college straight out of high school. Some 44 percent of high school graduates who took the Florida College System’s entrance exam failed the math section in 2010-11. Less than a third failed in reading and writing.
“I don’t know what happened with these people that come from high school,” said Isis Casanova de Franco, a remedial math professor at Miami Dade College. Casanova de Franco said her granddaughter in second grade can add but many of her college students cannot.
“It’s very difficult to understand how they don’t even know how to add or subtract whole numbers,” she said.
A national problem
Part 3: Why math is a persistent problem
The situation in Florida is similar to what’s happening across the United States. A 2010 Columbia University study of 57 community colleges in seven states found that one in two incoming students needed to take remedial math courses.
Another study by Harvard University researchers looked around the world. It found that only 32 percent of U.S. high school students graduating in 2011 were proficient in math. Of 65 nations that participated in the Harvard survey, the U.S. ranked 32nd. Vinton Gray Cerf, an Internet entrepreneur quoted in the Harvard report, said the U.S. is not producing enough innovators because of a deteriorating K-12 education system. He also blamed a national culture that doesn’t value engineering and science.
The culture problem is a deep one and won’t be easy to solve. A number of Florida college students interviewed for this series, including Wendy Pedroso, quickly volunteered that they “hate” math. Many of Florida’s public school students never master basic math skills early in their education, creating a deficiency that causes them to struggle with the subject throughout their educational career.
Jakeisha Thompson, a math instructor at Miami Dade College’s downtown Miami campus, sees it every day. “What I found with those students is that many of them have had a hatred for math for as long as they can remember,” Thompson said. “And it goes all the way back to elementary school.”
David Rock, dean of the school of education at the University of Mississippi and a math teacher, said cultural antagonism toward math also affects parents’ expectations. “People don’t want to say ‘my child is illiterate,’ but they have no problem to saying ‘my child is not good at math,’” Rock said. “It has become socially acceptable, and we have to do something before it gets out of control.”
‘A creative discipline’
Many experts say one answer lies in re-thinking how math is taught in K-12 schools. Math is a challenging subject that requires critical-thinking skills — traits not often emphasized and developed in the U.S. public school system, unlike in China and Japan.
How teachers approach math lessons also is crucial, because they need to make lessons interesting to engage students and help them succeed. Teaching techniques such as memorization and repetition have contributed to math’s reputation as a dreadful subject in the U.S., said Richard Rusczyk, founder of Art of Problem Solving. That’s a school in California that focuses on creating interactive educational opportunities for avid math students.
“Math is a creative discipline,” Rusczyk said. “It’s not fun if you have to memorize it, and that way it’s not easy to learn.”
Rusczyk said many students who struggle with math throughout their K-12 careers are like Pedroso — they never mastered basic math skills. “What I found out by working with high school students is to go back where the problem started,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not algebra but the fact that the student never learned how to deal with fractions.”
The use of calculators in classrooms is part of the problem. Students are allowed to use calculators when taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT – the test they have to pass in order to graduate from high school.
Casanova de Franco, the Miami Dade College remedial math teacher, said many students are using calculators before they’ve mastered basic math skills.
“Calculators are good when you know how to do everything,” Casanova de Franco said. “But it shouldn’t be used to supplement thinking.”
A curriculum gap
Another problem is that high school math programs are not geared toward college readiness. The FCAT, for example, tests only 10th-grade level math skills. The Florida Department of Education says a new test coming in a couple of years will be more aligned to college standards.
And up until now, students have been allowed to graduate high school without taking a math class higher than Algebra 1. This is the last year students will be allowed to graduate high school without taking more advanced classes. The hope is that requiring more advanced math classes will mean more students are prepared for college.
But high school teacher Katerine Santana says that alone won’t solve the problem.
She teaches Algebra 2 at Miami Northwestern Senior High. Like professor Casanova de Franco, she said many of her students can’t add or subtract. This poses a challenge for math teachers because students who have fallen behind and lack foundational skills tend to lose interest in the subject.
“Early on, if we instill that math is part of our daily life, I think that kids are going to have more of a positive attitude towards it,” Santana said. “Because in high school, when they’re juniors and are going to graduate next year, it’s very hard to convince them that this is an important subject.”
Some schools are experimenting with hiring a new kind of math teacher. Traditionally, students in elementary schools received math lessons from generalists, who did not necessarily have any expertise in teaching math. But in recent years, school districts have hired mathematicians and math coaches throughout the K-12 system.
Math coaches work closely with teachers and students to build math skills in the classroom. They give struggling students one-on-one attention to help them focus on areas where they need help and work with teachers to design effective math lessons. Many school districts in Florida hired math and reading coaches when federal economic stimulus funding became available in 2009.
The new hires may help. A three-year study in Virginia that ended in 2008 found that math coaches in elementary school have a positive impact on student achievement over time.
Wendy Pedroso blames the K-12 public school system and her teachers for not preparing her for college. Pedroso admits she became too dependent on calculators in her high school math classes. But she said she was a vocal student in high school and frequently asked questions about algebra and fractions.
“I needed to understand why and how things worked,” Pedroso said of one of her math teachers. “But she didn’t take the time to explain things and moved onto the next subject even if we didn’t understand.”
Maria P. de Armas, is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Miami Dade County Public Schools, where Pedroso was a student. According to de Armas, Miami schools have instituted programs to identify students who are struggling with math and other subjects. But de Armas noted that meeting the needs of a diverse and economically depressed population — Miami is the sixth-poorest city in the United States — is challenging.
When asked if she thinks the public school system fails students, de Armas said: “I emphatically feel that we have not failed. I feel that nothing is perfect, and there’s always room for improvement.”
Shakira Lockett, another product of Miami schools, said the onus for learning math ultimately lies with students themselves. Lockett, 22, recently graduated from Miami Dade College after taking seven remedial classes. Three of those classes were in math. Lockett didn’t blame her teachers. She blamed herself for not working hard enough at math while in high school.
“Sometimes I felt lost in math, but I feel that the teachers were OK in public schools,” Lockett said. “I was able to get the proper teaching in the schools. But I think it was up to me also to go home and study. I just hated math so much.”
Wendy Pedroso’s negative attitude toward math has changed a bit. After dropping out of her first remedial math class at Miami Dade College, she passed the lower-level remedial math class last spring among the top students in her class. The extra coursework taught her discipline and studying skills, she said. She has conquered her fears of fractions and doesn’t rely on a calculator anymore. “I see the difference in my work,” Pedroso said.
While Pedroso hasn’t declared a major, she acknowledged that her experience has given her the confidence to consider choosing a field of study that requires math. She’s considering studying business, criminal justice or advertising.
“I’m not as scared at looking at other areas as I was before,” Pedroso said. “I’ve got a lot of more options.”
In a series of stories this week and throughout December, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida will explore the growing need for remedial education among Florida’s high school graduates and older students. We’ll try to figure out how we got here and what the state can do to improve public education and provide students with the skills and tools they need to succeed in college and in the workforce.