Algebra Doesn’t Have to Be Scary

Two Carnegie-supported approaches help community-college students of all backgrounds succeed in math.

Pupils at Williamwood High School attend a math class on February 5, 2010 in Glasgow, Scotland.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Oct. 28, 2013, 2:05 a.m.

Ar­ica Haw­ley used to dread math class. She would look at prob­lems and not even know where to be­gin. When Haw­ley, 37, went back to Ta­coma (Wash.) Com­munity Col­lege last fall to fin­ish her as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree, she placed in­to a pre-al­gebra course — eighth-grade-level ma­ter­i­al.

Her mind­set didn’t change un­til she took Stat­way, a col­lege-level stat­ist­ics course for stu­dents who need to mas­ter high school math. She earned a col­lege cred­it, and gained the con­fid­ence she needed to switch to a math- and sci­ence-heavy nurs­ing pro­gram.  

Many com­munity-col­lege stu­dents nev­er make it to gradu­ation be­cause they can’t pass de­vel­op­ment­al, or re­medi­al, math. Two courses from the Carne­gie Found­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Teach­ing and its part­ners prove that a more en­ga­ging cur­riculum and teach­ing meth­od can help stu­dents suc­ceed.

“Math is now my fa­vor­ite,” Haw­ley says. “Chem­istry’s even mak­ing sense.” She’ll soon have enough cred­its to trans­fer to a four-year uni­versity.

Com­munity col­leges serve high con­cen­tra­tions of Latino, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, and first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents, and adult stu­dents like Haw­ley. At TCC, an urb­an cam­pus in a ma­jor­ity white city, 38 per­cent of the largely work­ing-class stu­dent body identi­fy them­selves as non­white.

Roughly two-thirds of new com­munity-col­lege stu­dents place in­to de­vel­op­ment­al math, says Thomas Bailey, dir­ect­or of the Com­munity Col­lege Re­search Cen­ter at Teach­er’s Col­lege, loc­ated at Columbia Uni­versity. Of those stu­dents, few­er than one in four earn a de­gree or cer­ti­fic­ate with­in eight years.  

“It eats up time and fin­an­cial aid, es­pe­cially when we have stu­dents who have to re­take those courses three, four, and five times,” says John Keller­mei­er, the TCC math fac­ulty mem­ber who taught Haw­ley’s Stat­way course. Stu­dents who test two or three levels be­low Al­gebra II — con­sidered col­lege-level math — have to pass mul­tiple de­vel­op­ment­al courses be­fore they can take a course that counts to­ward gradu­ation.

In 2009, Carne­gie foun­ded the Com­munity Col­lege Path­ways Pro­gram, a net­work of com­munity col­leges, pro­fes­sion­al as­so­ci­ations, and re­search­ers de­term­ined to im­prove math lit­er­acy. Par­ti­cipants wanted to re­think the con­tent and the teach­ing meth­od of de­vel­op­ment­al math, and to draw from the best re­search avail­able. A num­ber of found­a­tions helped fund the de­vel­op­ment and im­ple­ment­a­tion of the new ma­ter­i­als, in­clud­ing the Bill and Melinda Gates Found­a­tion, a Next Amer­ica spon­sor.

The pro­gram came up with two one-year courses: stat­ist­ics course Stat­way and quant­it­at­ive-reas­on­ing course Quant­way. Stat­way blends some high school al­gebra with col­lege-level stat­ist­ics all year, while Quant­way is di­vided in­to two semesters: one more fo­cused on de­vel­op­ment­al math, the oth­er more fo­cused on col­lege-level quant­it­at­ive reas­on­ing.

“Al­gebra really is a bunch of tools you’re teach­ing stu­dents to make math mu­sic [with] later,” says Rachel Mudge, a Stat­way in­struct­or and a fac­ulty mem­ber at Foot­hill Col­lege, a com­munity col­lege in Los Al­tos, Cal­if. It’s not un­til cal­cu­lus that stu­dents face com­plex prob­lems with no clear an­swer. But in stat­ist­ics, data sets get messy early, al­low­ing stu­dents to use more cre­at­ive think­ing.

Both courses al­low fac­ulty to teach al­gebra rel­ev­ant to the col­lege-level ma­ter­i­al, and to pub­lic de­bates and ques­tions stu­dents will face in the work­force. In Stat­way, stu­dents learn to read graphs, de­term­ine prob­ab­il­ity, and de­tect bi­as in data. They brain­storm ways to prove or dis­prove the­or­ies, like the as­ser­tion by as­tro­lo­gers that birth dates de­term­ine per­son­al­ity traits.

Stu­dents are grouped in­to threes or fours and may stay in those groups throughout the course. The groups work through the ma­ter­i­al to­geth­er every day, and are re­spons­ible for keep­ing each oth­er up to speed. The sense of ob­lig­a­tion to a study group helps boost at­tend­ance and keeps stu­dents en­gaged, Mudge says.

The courses also in­clude ex­er­cises that ad­dress math anxi­ety. Many stu­dents be­lieve they’re just not ‘math people.’ “If we don’t change how they see them­selves, they’re go­ing to real­ize a self-ful­filling proph­ecy,” says Ber­nad­ine Chuck Fong, the dir­ect­or of Carne­gie’s de­vel­op­ment­al math ini­ti­at­ive.  

In­struct­ors stress the value of “pro­duct­ive struggle” — the idea that strug­gling with the ma­ter­i­al means you’re learn­ing and grow­ing, even if you don’t get to the right an­swer. Stu­dents read an art­icle that ex­plains that the brain, like a muscle, can bulk up to handle more chal­len­ging tasks. By learn­ing how to do oth­er math, stu­dents gain con­fid­ence in their abil­ity to ap­proach al­gebra.

Stat­way was launched in the fall of 2011 at 19 com­munity col­leges and two state uni­versit­ies. Across the CCs, only 5.9 per­cent of stu­dents who began in de­vel­op­ment­al math typ­ic­ally earned col­lege math cred­it with­in a year, ac­cord­ing to a Carne­gie re­port. In the ini­tial Stat­way class of 1,077 stu­dents, 78 per­cent were placed at least two levels be­low col­lege-level math.  

By year’s end, 51 per­cent of stu­dents had passed the class and earned a col­lege cred­it. Quant­way has seen sim­il­ar gains, al­though Carne­gie has not yet as­sessed com­ple­tion rates for both semesters.  

“We just fin­ished our second year — last year, 2012-13 — and we’ve got­ten the same suc­cess rates we did the first year, so we feel this is something that is go­ing to be scal­able,” Fong says. Start­ing in 2012, new col­leges pay start-up fees to join the con­sor­ti­um — $25,000 in the first year and $20,000 in the second. Carne­gie also of­fers a free, five-week Quant­way course through on­line pro­vider No­voEd.

Thirty cam­puses in 11 states now are im­ple­ment­ing Stat­way and 22 are un­der­way with Quant­way. The Uni­versity of Wash­ing­ton, Cali­for­nia State Uni­versity, the Uni­versity of Min­nesota, and Con­necti­c­ut state col­leges ac­cept Stat­way as a trans­fer cred­it. The Carne­gie-led con­sor­ti­um con­tinu­ally up­dates course ma­ter­i­als, draw­ing from stu­dent data and in­put from col­leges and fac­ulty. 

The con­sor­ti­um has found that stu­dents do bet­ter when they be­lieve they can suc­ceed, feel that they be­long in the classroom, and feel con­nec­ted to their peers and teach­er. “Those three seem to be very, very im­port­ant factors in stu­dent suc­cess, even more so than demo­graph­ic factors — race, eth­ni­city, so­cial class,” Fong says.

The suc­cess of the pro­gram doesn’t sur­prise Keller­mei­er. “Some­body was fi­nally say­ing that the re­search backed up what I’ve been try­ing to say for the past 20, 25 years,” he says of Carne­gie’s ini­tial pro­pos­al to bring Stat­way to his cam­pus. Not every math in­struct­or teaches the way he does, without lec­tur­ing and with at­ten­tion to stu­dents’ psy­cho­lo­gic­al needs. Stat­way and Quant­way de­mand that kind of teach­ing. Fac­ulty who make the shift see that it makes a dif­fer­ence.

Up­date: This art­icle has been up­dated with more re­cent fig­ures on the num­ber of in­sti­tions im­ple­ment­ing Stat­way and Quant­way. 

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