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Algebraic equations on a piece of paper, with a pencil lying atop.

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Mathematics continues to pose formidable challenges to college students of all ages and backgrounds.

It remains vital that we use achievable and proven routes to prepare both new and nontraditional students for success in mathematics. One of the best approaches over time has proven to be remedial math education, which has helped many returning students—those who have come back to college later in life or who may have struggled mightily with math in younger years—believe in themselves afresh and gain access to new domains of knowledge that at one time seemed beyond their hope of ever understanding.

Yet such noteworthy triumphs are left out of most of the recent portrayals and critiques of remedial math.

Rather, the dominant narrative has been the one that depicts most, if not all, of remedial math as having been a fool’s errand, a “bridge to nowhere,” a barrier to college completion. The belief is that having students retake classes that they took prior to college causes them such discouragement and frustration that it tends to impede, rather than enhance, their chances at long-term success in higher ed.

The reality on the ground, however, is far more complex and nuanced than many of the naysayers would have you believe.

The primary model being hailed as better for students in need of improving their basic math skills is called the corequisite math model. Remedial math involves basic courses, such as pre-algebra and elementary algebra, one or more of which may be required before students can enroll in a college-level math class such as statistics or precalculus. Coreq math, on the other hand, aims to have students immediately enroll in a college-level course and simultaneously take a support course designed to shore up their math skills.

I liken coreq math to trying to learn how to swim and play water polo simultaneously. For those who can already swim fairly well, such a scenario may work. But it is more problematic for those who can’t swim well or can’t swim at all.

Some of the major studies touting the success of coreq math have only analyzed those students in the first category—those who can already swim fairly well. That is, they study the success of students who score right near the borderline between having to take a remedial math class or placing into a college-level class. These particular studies did not include students who scored further below the threshold (or who had weak arithmetic skills).

But what happens to the students with weaker skills in the coreq model? They make up a sizable segment of the student population in open-enrollment institutions and can’t be ignored. Yet instead of waiting for more detailed studies on such students (some of whom struggle with basic multiplication and division), many administrators and politicians view coreq math as working for every student and advocate for the elimination of all remedial math courses. This, in spite of the fact that not all of the most cited researchers in this area have actually advocated for this.

Many critics argue that coreq math helps many more students graduate than does remedial math. However, at least two major independent studies did not find any effect of enrollment in coreq math on long-term persistence and college completion.

This lack of effect isn’t surprising to many instructors who have taught these students for years, since they have consistently pointed out that many students who don’t persist in college drop out for nonacademic reasons, and it is misleading to solely blame remedial math.

I teach mathematics in New Mexico, and the zeal for coreq math has now reached our doorstep. I believe that there is an important place for coreq math but that it does not work for every student. Over the years, I have personally observed the success of many students who scored just below the cutoff prerequisite score for a given college-level course but whom I nevertheless let into the course. Coreq math can and does work for many of these students.

But remedial math works for many students, too, and has for years. To portray it as having been an abysmal failure is inaccurate in the extreme, and it is risky to assume that coreq math is the great panacea, or that all the students who previously found success and new talents in remedial math will find similar success in coreq math. I’ve taught students who have taken remedial math classes who have gone on to be engineering, science or math majors, even math teachers. Will such possibilities be discoverable by them in corequisite support classes (designed to shore up basic skills) that don’t teach arithmetic and algebra in the same detail?

While the content of the remedial classes students take in college may look the same as those they took in middle or high school, the fact that the students are more mature (with lots of lived experiences behind them) means that creative instructors can bring a lot more into their classes in ways that make these courses far more than simple repeats of students’ earlier K-12 experiences. For instance, remedial math at the college level affords greater opportunity to show that mathematics includes far more than just abstract symbols, procedures and examinations—rather, that it paves the way for the creation of a powerful conceptual architecture that is able to connect ideas across the disciplines, with such connections proving integral to the development and sustainability of many of the infrastructures that exist in our modern world.

In short, students can, through remedial classes, gain an enhanced and big-picture viewpoint on mathematics that was unavailable to them before. In many cases, the conquest of a subject that once tripped them up can result in a remarkable epiphany that, instead of discouraging students, can give some a newfound confidence and appreciation that can spur them on to greater success in college and elsewhere.

I urge decision-makers in my state and elsewhere not to overgeneralize the results of the important studies out there on coreq math. I also urge them to resist the temptation to place those students with the weakest math, English and reading skills into precollege programs (thus turning open-enrollment community colleges into de facto more selective institutions). Rather, they should follow a more cautious road, one that continues to allow institutions to offer both coreq math and remedial math courses, providing sufficient support and resources for both.

The history of education is littered with the ghosts of educational movements that overpromised and then failed to deliver because they were hurriedly implemented at large scale with no recognition or allowance being made for shortcomings and unknowns.

Let’s leverage the lessons of history and recognize that remedial math has been a successful model for a great many students (spectacularly so for some), and not carelessly toss it aside wholesale in a burst of exuberance for another model that could end up offering less, not more, opportunity to those students most in need of assistance at our open-enrollment institutions.

Gerald Arnell Williams is a professor of mathematics at San Juan College in New Mexico. He is the author of two books that directly address topics in remedial mathematics from more mature and big-picture viewpoints: Algebra the Beautiful: An Ode to Math’s Least-Loved Subject (Basic Books, 2022) and How Math Works: A Guide to Grade School Arithmetic for Parents and Teachers (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

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