State of Our Cities: Why Improving Algebra Completion Rates Matters for Hispanic Students and the Economy

logoby William McKenzie

shutterstock_180368372The progress of Hispanic students is undoubtedly one of our top domestic challenges, if not the most important one in states like Texas and California. Hispanics make up more than half of the student population in our two most populous states.

What’s more, the most recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that states like South Dakota and Tennessee also have growing Hispanic student populations. Growth in the nation’s Latino population overall has slowed over the last few years. Still, Latinos accounted for 54 percent of America’s population from 2000-2014.

For these reasons, and their implication for the future, I have been interested in students like Jannet Barrera, the Texas A&M graduate who now is working on her master’s with the hope of earning a Ph.D. The success of students like Jannet, who is the first in her family to attend college, will influence the type of leaders, doctors, educators, engineers, and innovators the nation will develop over at least the next few decades. So will the academic policies that we pursue at the national, state, and local levels.

With this challenge in mind, I looked at data from the Bush Institute’s new State of Our Cities education report and matched it up with the Pew Center’s report on the metropolitan areas with the largest Hispanic populations. Specifically, I looked at the State of Our Cities report on middle school algebra completion rates.

That metric is important because completion of middle school algebra increases the chances that students will succeed in higher-level math courses in high school. More challenging high school math classes, of course, set the stage for college as well as developing skills that can later serve a student in a global economy that prizes technological ability.

Look at the emphasis now being placed on writing computer codes. The skill has become so much in demand that coding camps are being set up to train workers for jobs that will pay a decent wage for arguably a long time. The same is true with community colleges. They are focusing on training people to code, too.

To be sure, algebra may not always sound like fun. I certainly didn’t relish it when I took it. But algebra does teach critical thinking skills, which is why civil rights leader Bob Moses launched The Algebra Project.

So, what do we know about the completion rates for Hispanic middle schoolers in those metropolitan areas?

They range from a high of 86 percent in San Francisco to a low of 15 percent in Mesa, Arizona. Between those high and low scores, rates for the other top metro areas look like this:

Los Angeles 50 percent/Long Beach 43 percent

New York 16 percent

Miami 45 percent/West Palm Beach 31 percent

Houston 19 percent

Chicago 29 percent

Dallas 21 percent/Fort Worth 18 percent/Arlington 19 percent

Chicago 29 percent

Phoenix 19 percent/Mesa 15 percent

San Antonio 18 percent

San Diego 53 percent

San Francisco 86 percent/Oakland 21 percent

In other words, the completion rates are mostly bunched below 50 percent. In five cities, Miami, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and San Francisco, the rates for Latino middle school students trump those for all students in those places. Elsewhere, though, most Hispanic middle school completion rates trail those for all other students in their cities

These trends certainly suggest the need for successful strategies. Over the next few weeks, I will be looking at approaches that do work in some of these cities. But we do already know that teaching students how to apply their math skills to solve a particular problem will deepen their conceptual understanding of the subject. Of course, the hope is that such understanding will also increase their attention in the subject.

The reality is that we all have a stake in strategies working for every student taking algebra. But Hispanic completion rates are especially important.

Not only do Hispanic students now make up a large share of the student population in places like Texas and California, they soon will make up a large part of the workforce around the country. Their skills will contribute significantly to our economic growth, as well as their own mobility.

William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst:  A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

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