Every year, during the winter, I hold a short course on math.
I lie. It’s not really about math. It’s about arithmetic. Adding and subtracting. Multiplying and dividing. And that really advanced application of those four actions, figuring out a percentage.
The course as has happened repeatedly in the journalism program at Holland College, where I teach was born out of a conversation I had one day with a student.
For the first time, I’d asked my students to write a math test. I made it multiple choice, although I hesitated because I wanted to avoid guessing. Students could use a calculator if they wished. And if they didn’t have one, I’d provide one.
The results were decidedly mixed. Some students finished the test in minutes, whizzing through without a mistake. Many were cautious, perhaps suspicious of a test that asked them to add 199 and 18, then divide the total by 2.
And then there was the young woman sitting in front of me. She scored a 20 per cent on the test.
“What happened on the test?” I asked after closing my office door.
“It looks like you simply guessed.”
“I did,” she said.
“I don’t know how to do math. Never did.”
“How did you get out of high school?”
“I guessed. Every test.”
And so my math class was born.
Slowly, carefully, I try to help students figure out how to do a percentage, a skill useful not to just journalists, but most people. After all, if you are told you’re getting a salary increase of five per cent, or your rent is going up by seven per cent, you’d like to know what that means to your wallet.
Tears are not unusual early on, but the class - usually about one-quarter to one-third of the first-years - takes it nice and easy. Private meetings after class are encouraged. And still, some struggle to pass the final test.
And that is why I agree with at least some of what Michael Zwaagstra of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies said recently about the idea of pushing students into the next grade even if they fail to pass the required courses.
“Certainly we should start from a basic premise that a pass should be earned, that if you’re going to move from one grade to the next you have to be at least at the level where you have mastered at least most of what you need to master,” he said.
“There's no point in moving to the next grade if you're far below that level, because it’s almost impossible then for next year’s teacher to help you get caught up, not if they’re going to also teach the rest of the class at their grade level.”
Now, I get it. Making a kid repeat a grade can cause all kinds of social problems. Kids can be cruel. If you’re forced to sit with kids a year younger than you, the problems are obvious. And I don’t think making a kid do that will do much good for some.
But somewhere along the way, a student must learn the basics they will need to survive after graduation. And, I would suggest, being able to do basic arithmetic is essential.
Tutoring, or a class where students can work individually with a teacher on a specific subject, would be a good investment.
And no one should be able to graduate from high school until they can calculate a percentage. No one. If that hurts a student’s feelings, they’ll just have to get over it. The world won’t care about their feelings.