We, the Gatekeepers

From Dan Meyer‘s report on the “Thoughts On Rationalizing Algebra In Ways That Serve Kids, Not Universities” session from a recent math conference:

The day before CMC-North I was trading notes with our lead counselor, just swapping stories about kids, when she mentioned a student who was at the end of her turn at the local community college. She’d be transferring to a state college to complete a liberal arts degree if it weren’t for a failing grade in Algebra II. Because she can’t yet perform long division on polynomials, she’ll have to postpone her degree in (just guessing here) linguistics a full year.

Stories like this drive me crazy.  Mathematics has been positioned as the primary gatekeeper for post-secondary education.  What’s worse, thanks to early streaming of math education (in the name of helping students achieve success!) that gate is often locked for students the moment they step through the doors of high school.

Now, my problem in writing this is that I so desperately want to hammer out a harsh rant and lay out exactly what’s being done wrong and how to fix it; except that I just finished my practicum with a cross-section of Grade 9’s in both a “Math 9” and “Essentials of Math 9” block.  I know there is no easy solution because I’ve seen at least half a dozen of any category of student you want to think of: underachievers, overachievers, those crippled by poor self-efficacy, students with learning disabilities or global delays, students not actually flagged as LD or delayed but quietly falling behind those who are… the list goes on.  I don’t have a single solution that wouldn’t leave at least half a dozen of those students worse off than they deserve.

But what’s truly frightening is the thought that no amount of educational reform at the secondary level is going to remove that gatekeeper effect.

Western Canada’s provinces and territories are currently adopting a new secondary math curriculum from grades 10 – 12.  This new curriculum has been designed to provide two possible streams leading to post-secondary education.

  • Pre-Calculus prepares students for STEM programs.
  • Foundations is designed to prepare students for liberal arts programs.
  • Applications and Workplace is the “easy” stream, but is notably more challenging than the previous “Essentials” stream. It covers the basic Trig and Geometry knowledge needed for trades work, as well as general life skills math (personal accounting, taxes, etc).

The programs were designed in consultation with post-secondary institutions in Western Canada, and all sounded great.  Then UBC released their basic entrance requirements for students coming to them through this new curriculum:


  • Foundations 11 and 12, or
  • Pre-Calc 11

The effect being, for students who aren’t going into STEM fields and simply want to do enough math to get to their goal, the Foundations stream will mean taking an extra course.  Naturally, many math teachers see that as a death knell for the Foundations stream as it was designed.  (How many English-majors-to-be want to sign up for two math classes when they can get the pain over with more quickly?)

All of this just highlights the real problem: universities and colleges want a gatekeeper.  They want that extra way to filter admissions, because they have to do it somehow.  Worse, they don’t want to be seen as the “easy” school to get into, because this lowers their respectability.  (This also drives me crazy.)  So they demand gatekeepers, whether or not those gateways are actually a more useful math education for their students.

2 thoughts on “We, the Gatekeepers

  1. Pingback: dy/dan » Blog Archive » Asilomar #1: What Do We Do With Algebra II

  2. There’s a more specific problem here, that of that most degree requirements (even the most liberal of liberal arts) include College Algebra. Many (most?) colleges also do not teach levels below that, so they require make-up in a community college or other environment to even take that minimum.

    So if you want the college to change their requirement, they have to either a.) drop math entirely for liberal arts or b.) add a lower math class and have that as a requirement. I believe both have been experimented with.

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