The debatable nature of statistics makes it appealing to non-traditional students, writes Paul Verschueren, an instructor at Seattle Central College.

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For decades, pre-college math in community college has taken a single approach: high school math, v. 2. Students enroll in college and take an exam. They are either ready for pre-calculus or they have some pre-college review to do. This review can take up to a year, provided they pass each class with a 2.0 or better. This single track ignores the student’s career goals and prepares all students for pre-calculus, even if their major will not require it.

Community college students need options to give them the best possible chance of success.

The single-track approach might be appropriate for high school students. Generally, we teach our secondary-aged students such that doors remain open for all professions and shy away from a math track that restricts potential career opportunities. But our concerns about limiting students have led to the assumption that all community college students need to know or relearn high school math. We teach the subject out of context with a uniform approach.

An alternative path called Statway was implemented at Seattle Central College four years ago, using statistics as the required math course. Some algebra is necessary for statistics, so we provide algebra instruction in context and as needed. Only a fraction of the pre-college math taught in the traditional track is necessary. The statistical content is matched point-for-point with the equivalent introduction to statistics class.

What if a student changes her mind? Does she have to start all over again? Remember that community college students are generally not undeclared 18 year olds. They are people of all ages attending school with a particular goal in mind. But still: What if they do change their minds? I’ve had this happen. The student decided he wanted to be a math teacher. He served as a teaching assistant for the next year’s Statway sequence, and, for him, the gift of finding passion for math and teaching was more than worth his time and effort. He was happy to restart the traditional sequence, but with a little studying, he tested out of it.

Statistics is well suited to non-traditional students. Very little is “fact” in statistics. Conclusions are always imperfect and debatable — a nice break from the single, absolute answer in pure math classes. Probability and logic take the front seat as we debate politics, science and legal precedent. When “truth” is a range of values, there is room for many voices. The ability to use these skills to interpret the world around them will not only benefit these students as professionals, but as citizens.

If we are to provide alternatives appropriate for all students, one additional statistics track is not a catch-all. But opening doors to alternatives is an excellent start, and I am deeply proud and honored to be part of it.

Paul Verschueren teaches Statway as well as traditional pre-college mathematics at Seattle Central College.  He also works as a consultant for the Carnegie Foundation helping instructors teaching Statway for the first time.