What is the needed math?

By Katherine Hughes and Rodney Null

Considering community college technician pathways in math reforms.

Motivated by low completion rates and concern over the relevance of the traditional algebra curriculum, there are currently numerous efforts at math reform in postsecondary education across the country. Many colleges and systems are moving away from the “algebra-for-all” principle with the development and implementation of new sequences of math courses. As examples, both Ohio and Maryland started Mathematics Initiatives in 2014, which engaged each state’s public two-year and four-year institutions in establishing alternative high-quality math pathways, such as statistics and quantitative reasoning.

These reforms are welcome but may fall short of addressing the most practical reason for math reform in community college technical programs: ensuring students have the math preparation needed to be successful in the workplace. An important question is, to what extent should math requirements be differentiated according to students’ chosen majors and pathways? Do two or three math pathways provide enough differentiation in content? Are these recent efforts paying sufficient attention to the math that is needed in the technician positions that many community college graduates are headed for? What is the needed math for the many technicians now wanted in the workforce?

The “Needed Math Conference,” sponsored by the National Science Foundation, addressed this issue. The multi-day meeting brought together employers from three STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields (biotechnology, manufacturing technology and information and communication technology), postsecondary instructors from those fields, and math educators from both the secondary and postsecondary levels. The conference was unique in design. Small groups from within the same STEM fields analyzed workplace scenarios for the needed math. Educators discussed where in the math curriculum those concepts and skills are taught, or not. Participants also met in affinity groups of all employers, instructors or educators, and then all attendees came together to synthesize findings and recommendations.

The major findings from the conference include:

  • There is a gap between the typical textbook problem and the problems that arise on the job, even though the underlying mathematics may be the same. For example, a problem in the workplace does not typically identify the mathematical concepts or skills required for its solution.
  • There is a gap between the mathematical preparation many students receive and the mathematical requirements of an increasingly technological workplace. For example, the math required for a STEM career includes the use of math to model real-world phenomena and processes, statistical reasoning and data analysis.

Recommendations include:

  • We should place greater emphasis on contextualized math instruction at all grade levels and in all mathematics courses.
  • We should establish a separate rigorous math pathway that focuses on solving real-world problems.

Focusing on topics, approaches and pedagogy in math classrooms that better reflect the demands of the contemporary workplace might speak to all learners, and be a pathway to success, rather than a barrier. The preparation of a skilled workforce is of interest to all of us.

Katherine Hughes

is a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research, where she is the project director for the Career and Technical Education Research Network.

Rodney Null

is a professor at mathematics at Rhodes State College in Lima, Ohio.