Math Struggles Continue Through College for Florida Students

The Miami Herald reports that even with all the attention Florida schools have drawn for their reform efforts over the last decade – especially in the areas of college readiness – students continue to graduate from high school without the necessary skills to succeed in college-level math courses. More than any other subject, mathematics continues to daunt college freshmen across the state, as the number of them requiring remediation stubbornly refuses to decline.

Over the 2010-2011 academic year, roughly 55,000 students needed to enroll in remedial reading courses — and about 51,000 needed additional help in writing. Yet over the same period, a staggering 125,000 students required math remediation, more than double the number requiring remediation in any other subject.

A substantial percentage of that could be attributed to the growing number of over-20s who are entering college for the first time – several years removed from high school graduation and the regular math drills – who are responding to a sluggish job market by tackling higher education.

But they do not account for the entirety of the problem. Nearly 44% of Florida students who took Florida College System’s entrance exam – which seeks to assess the students’ skills in the core subjects – failed to pass the mathematics portion, compared to less than a third who failed the writing and reading parts of the test.

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.

One of the barriers standing in the way of a comprehensive solution to the problem is the attitude most students have towards the subject. More than a few of the college students interviewed by the Herald readily admitted that they “hated” math and revealed a history of struggle in math classes going back to elementary school.

The failure to grasp the fundamentals early on will almost always lead to difficulties later, yet a substantial number of Florida public school students don’t master the basics early on in their academic careers. This is leading a growing number of education experts to propose that we’re overdue to reconsider the way mathematics are taught in schools across the state and across the country.

 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, a California school that focuses on creating interactive educational opportunities for avid math students.