Mad Math: Failure Road

 The unusually high failure rate of the SMC Math Department has led many students to take their math classes through the UCLA Extension Program. AJ Perry

The unusually high failure rate of the SMC Math Department has led many students to take their math classes through the UCLA Extension Program. AJ Perry

 

The high failure rate in SMC's Math Dept. raises questions, causes concerns among students seeking answers

There’s a familiar sight every time you walk past the math complex. Students of all sizes, ages, and backgrounds clutch their returned tests in hand and discuss their grades with confusion and disappointment.

These students are so focused on looking at their papers that they can’t avert their eyes. One student with a heavy backpack will bump into two people, shortly apologizing with a mutter. His focus is somewhere else: on the terrible grade he just received on his math test.

The students stumbling out of the Math department with a shocked look on their face and a failing grade on their mind aren't just English or art majors either. Last fall, Samantha Purucker, a chemical engineering major, walked out of the math complex with a D in Math 7. Just like the English majors, STEM students discover that they're failing in math too.

It's the best known secret on campus: SMC students are failing to pass their math classes in record numbers. According to the Fall 2015 Grade Distribution Report, around 26 percent of students received D’s or F’s, while according to the Fall 2015 Course Retention Rate report, another 27.1 percent are dropping out before the semester is completed.

In total, 53 percent of SMC students aren't able to pass their math courses, a rate far higher than in any other department. In comparison, the Life Sciences Department has a total non-passing rate of 30.6 percent and the Physical Sciences Department has a total non-passing rate of 35.8 percent. These are classes that are plenty tough, so the Math Department's high failure rate can't simply be due to the general challenge of the course material.

A visual breakdown of SMC's grade distribution for the Math, Life & Physical Science departments.
A visual breakdown of SMC's grade distribution for the Math, Life & Physical Science departments.

But the million dollar question is: what is rotten in SMC's Math Department?

According to students who spoke to The Corsair, including engineering major and Associated Students Director of Budget Management Samuel Ross, the problem is likely due to a number of factors.

"I don't think it's any one problem," Ross said. "I think part of it is the dearth of full-time faculty. I think maybe [the other part] is that they're really taught for math majors. I mean we're a community college. We should be trying to meet students where they're at."

Ross elaborated a bit saying that while much of what was taught in higher level math courses was rigorous and "cool" for those who majored in mathematics, much of it wasn't relevant for most of the other STEM majors who far outnumbered them in class, let alone general ed students.

As for the lack of full-time faculty, the Math Department is currently comprised of 24 full-time (17 percent) and 117 part-time professors, offering 21 courses this semester. Many of these professors are overloaded, and are teaching over 3 sections.

Purucker, who came to SMC from the State University of New York Oswego, agreed with Ross about the methodology not being appropriate. Purucker had Professor William Konya last semester and expressed extreme disappointment with his methods, saying, "I feel like he taught the subject well, but the design of the class is not very conducive to a student succeeding. Homework from the textbook was assigned, but not collected or graded, so it was impossible to find out if we had done the problems to the professor's expectations until the exams.”

The Corsair spoke to Konya, who felt that he had struck a balance in his teaching methodology based on his 18 years of teaching at SMC. "One of the things that’s always a question to be addressed is how you’re going to balance the practical problem solving side to the more theoretical background of it . . . I try and strike a real balance between the two," said Konya.

Asked if he felt the faculty imbalance was a problem with the department, Konya said, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know if I think it does. I think based on what I’ve seen — the level of teaching at the part-time level is high.” Still, Konya agreed that he would like to see a higher percentage of full-time faculty.

[pullquote speaker="AS Director of Budget Management Samuel Ross" photo="" align="left" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]I think part of it is the dearth of full-time faculty. I think maybe [the other part] is that they're really taught for math majors. I mean we're a community college. We should be trying to meet students where they're at.[/pullquote]

Mitra Moassessi, chair of the Math Department, said, “Every year, each department requests more full-time faculty. However, the decision whether or not to hire more full-time faculty is made by the district.”

On this point though, there are movements being made by the school's administration to rectify the problem. At the District Planning and Advisory Council (DPAC) meeting on February 24, the gathered constituencies of SMC voted to recommend to the Board of Trustees that they raise the number of full-time faculty at an accelerated rate. In a motion forwarded by Moassessi and seconded by Peter Morse, DPAC recommended that the school district increase the amount of full-time faculty by five percent a year, every year, until a goal of 75 percent full-time faculty is reached in the 2022-23 school year.

According to Moassessi, this should begin this fall. With two of the current full-time Math Department staff retiring, they will be adding five new full-time professors for the 2016 Fall Semester.

Until then though, many SMC students, aware of the high chance they have of not passing math at SMC, due to the published grade distribution and word of mouth, have decided to find alternate solutions. The most common method has been skipping math at SMC entirely and instead taking equivalent UCLA extension courses, an option already used by international students frustrated with the high cost of counseling courses. While costing more money per class, many students have said that they're much easier and taught better.

Professor Konya claimed that he was unaware that students were taking this option. Said Konya, "Maybe it's just a natural course of events. The fact that you’re telling me that certainly doesn’t make me feel good or bad. It’s just kind of okay, that’s what’s going on."

Moassessi refused to comment on students taking these UCLA extension courses rather than staying at SMC, though she did defend the integrity of those who teach in the department. “Every faculty is professional and have been teaching for a long time,” said Moassessi. “They know what they’re doing.”

Irena Mihalachii and Jingwei Fu, business majors at SMC, prepare for math finals on campus.
Irena Mihalachii and Jingwei Fu, business majors at SMC, prepare for math finals on campus.

But of course, for a department based on metrics, the Math Department keeps facing troubling data. Aside from endless reports from students of all backgrounds and experiences like Purucker's, studies are showing deep problems.

A recent study performed by the Minority Male Community College Collaborative (M2C3) and presented at the April 5 Board of Trustees meeting, included the results of a focus group of math students who were men of color. Some of the challenges reported by participants included: inconsistency between lectures, text books, exams and other classes; faculty making students feel uncomfortable for asking questions or being stereotyped as incompetent; and a lack of validation or support to transfer from faculty.

It’s clear from this study, RateMyProfessor reviews and grade distribution reports, that students at SMC are struggling with the offered math classes here on campus.

A chance to see the results and attempt to improve upon them come in the form of published grade distribution reports, which give the amount of each letter grade awarded broken down by course and section.

“Every department chair gets a report from the district about grade distribution,” said Moassessi. When asked if the department uses this information to improve on the courses, she simply stated, “We study it,” and declined further comment.

Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to Professor William Konya as Matthew Konya. This has been corrected.