The results are in for my Intermediate Algebra class:
38 passes (59%)
26 not passes (41%), including 6 drops (9%)
If we take the drops out of the base we get the following:
58 students on the roll at the end of the class
38 passes (66%)
20 not passes (34%)
10 As (17%)
13 Bs (22%)
15 Cs (26%)
8 Ds (14%)
12 Fs (21%)
(Note: the D/F percentage does not add up to the not passes percentage because the numbers have been rounded.)
First, some positives: 9% drop/withdrawal rate is pretty good, especially for a math class that is not for majors. Similarly, a 59% pass rate for those who started the class is better than the historical average for intermediate algebra sections at my college. Further, a 66% pass rate for students in the class is around the community college national average; since intermediate algebra is a pre-collegiate course, which generally have a much lower average pass rate than other courses, this pass rate is very respectable when compared to other classes like it.
On the other hand, we’re talking more than 2 of every 5 students who started my class didn’t pass. Even of those that stayed on the roll, 1 in 3 didn’t pass. That is not acceptable to me. My assumption is that every student who tries and who doesn’t have some life crisis during the semester should pass.
A surprise was waiting for me in the demographics: the pass rate for women (21/32) is almost identical to that of the men (17/26). That’s surprising because in the past, women have done better in my classes than men. The racial breakdown is, unfortunately, more predictable. 78% of white students passed, with white women passing (7/8) significantly more than white men (4/8). The gender disparity in white students was made up for by the Latinas, six of whom passed out of nine, as compared to Latinos (4/8)—59% overall pass rate for Latina/os. Only one-third of my African American students passed (1/1 men and 1/5 women), while 70% of Asians passed, split evenly between men and women.
The $64/64-student-question: Could I have made a difference with some of the students who didn’t pass if I had fewer students in the class? My heart says yes. The numbers tell a different story—aside from the new gender parity, the results are very similar to most of my classes. This leads me to three possible explanations:
- Because of conscious and/or unconscious factors, I make grade distributions turn out about the same regardless of the number of students.
- There are other systematic and/or structural issues that lead to similar outcomes no matter the number of students in the class.
- I can teach 64 students as effectively as 34 students.
I don’t know which of these, or what combination of them, explains this semester’s results. And whatever the case, the issue becomes one of workload. In effect, I taught two sections of intermediate algebra during the last semester. The fact that they happened to be in the same room at the same time did little to mitigate the number students’ names and stories I needed to know or the amount of papers, quizzes, and tests I graded every night. The wear and tear on me, the number of late nights or very early mornings, the anxiety from always having the grading hanging over my head—all this is not sustainable.
I’m back to the conclusion that I can’t let it happen again—not if I want to survive semester after semester and year after year and continue to enjoy the same or better success. And fewer students would give me more time to work on other parts of my teaching, improvements that might help some of those students that are currently not passing.
So, how will I prevent classes from getting so large while still giving students the power to choose to be in my class? I don’t have an answer about which I’m entirely happy. Next semester, I’m going to experiment with a modified version of my system, whereby coming to class and doing the homework moves students up the waiting list; I will cut off the roll somewhere around 40 or 45. Still too many.
We are working in a system of scarcity—in this case educational—in which those that can afford to pay can get more attention, more support, and more access to higher paying jobs; those that can’t afford to pay, rarely get the same attention, support, or anything else. We continue to recreate this system. My little attempt to move away from a scarcity model worked in that the students who stayed in the class succeeded at the similar levels to those in other classes. But the personal cost is too high. Individuals can’t do it alone. It will take institutions, governments, and societies to move away from a scarcity model to one of access and plenty. I am hopeful, but not optimistic, about the possibilities for this kind of change to ever happen. Hoping and working for change, sometimes paying a personal price that is too high and sometimes not, is all I know to do.