Learning Works Develops Report Highlighting Benefits of Revamping Math Education

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New Approaches Based on Statistics and Quantitative Reasoning Appear to Boost Student Success

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Experiments to reverse low community college completion rates by redesigning the remedial math most students must take are yielding promising results, defying assumptions about the kind of math students really need, according to a new report by LearningWorks. An Oakland-based organization, LearningWorks is devoted to strengthening student achievement in community colleges.

In a major departure from the traditional one-size-fits-all remedial math sequence that emphasizes intermediate algebra, a growing number of the nation’s community colleges are part of a movement to prioritize statistics and quantitative reasoning, according to the report, entitled Changing Equations, published on October 15, 2013.

Early results – including a dramatic jump from 6 to 51 percent in the share of students completing college-level math in their first year of college -- are lending credence to the theory that the alternative pathways are better tailored to college majors that don’t require intermediate algebra. About a quarter of California’s 112 community colleges, as well as numerous colleges in about a dozen other states, have begun to develop these alternatives for non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students.

“Early results suggest that alternative pathways may provide the math foundation students need for success in their studies and their careers,” said Linda Collins, executive director of LearningWorks. “If so, the pathways could be one key to improving college completion in California and nationally.”

The new movement is fueled by the realization that current remedial math sequences may be the greatest hurdle preventing many students from earning an Associate degree or transferring to a four-year university. The majority of entering community college students are required, based on placement test scores, to take remedial math sequences before attempting a required college-level math class. Of those students, 80 percent fail to complete the sequence and pass college-level math, preventing them from graduating or transferring. Students of color are disproportionately affected.

“These numbers are troubling, especially considering that the vast majority of students could benefit from rigorous math courses besides intermediate algebra,” said Collins. “Yet an intermediate algebra class stands in their way of graduating. We need to think hard about how remedial math sequences can best serve students who don't want to become scientists or engineers."

The new math pathways supplement other reforms that colleges have been pursuing for several years – including changes to instruction and new placement policies.

“Increasingly, some colleges leaders and faculty believe those reforms alone won’t lead to the improvements in college completion rates that colleges around the country are seeking,” said Pamela Burdman, author of the report. “For a large number of students, statistics and quantitative reasoning may provide better preparation for college.”

Changing Equations was published to inform instructors, college leaders, and policy makers in California and nationally about the new experiments, as well as to share impressive preliminary results. Among the highlights:

  • The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has been experimenting with programs called Statway and Quantway, which involve 43 colleges in 11 states, including Washington, Florida, Texas, Ohio and New York. The foundation’s first report showed that 51 percent of students in Statway completed a college-level math course in their first year of college, compared with only 6 percent of students pursuing the standard pathway. In Quantway, a newer program, 56 percent of students completed developmental math during their first semester, compared with the 21 percent of students in the standard pathway who took two semesters to complete it.
  • Experiments with alternative pathways at colleges in California similarly have shown positive outcomes. At Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, for example, 82 percent of students enrolling in the alternative course Path2Stats completed a college-level statistics class within one year, while only 33 percent of those in the traditional pathway completed college-level math within three years.
  • College systems in Texas, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia also have engaged in some version of alternative pathways, although results of those efforts are not yet in.    

Though the results are still preliminary, various national organizations have highlighted the positive results. Aware of the gravity of the remedial math dilemma, they are urging other colleges to try the new approaches. “The alternative pathways are quite new, but interest in them seems to be multiplying,” said Burdman. “If, within a few years, early results are borne out, their adoption could grow exponentially.”

Nevertheless, the new pathways face many impediments, in particular the longstanding assumption that two years of algebra are essential for any educated person. Though that idea is based on a correlation, not causation, most K-12 schools and four-year universities still base their curricula on it. Therefore changes at community colleges could collide with existing policies on preparation for college as well as transfer to four-year universities in many states, making some sort of realignment inevitable.

“We hope our colleagues in K-12 schools and four-year universities monitor these developments,” said Collins. “If the experiments are successful and the students learning math through new pathways do well in college and beyond, the implications could extend throughout the entire education system.”

About LearningWorks

LearningWorks is a non-profit organization based in Oakland, California that facilitates, disseminates and funds practitioner-informed recommendations for changes at the community college system and classroom levels, infusing these strategies with statewide and national insights. LearningWorks strives to strengthen community college achievement in California, and thereby throughout the nation.

Pamela Burdman is a nationally recognized education policy analyst, philanthropy professional, and journalist. Currently an independent consultant to foundations and non-profits, she previously worked as a program officer for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, where she developed and implemented a strategy to improve college readiness and community college student success. Her earlier report, Where to Begin: The Evolving Role of Placement Exams for Students Starting College published by Jobs for the Future, also discussed efforts by community colleges to improve student success by reforming remedial education.

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