Too many students are failing their remedial math classes, and those who succeed often have little use for the advanced algebra on which those classes focus.
Acknowledging that, and hoping to replicate local successes, officials from all 50 Texas community colleges have endorsed a multiyear project designed to fundamentally change remedial math.
In Texas, students referred to developmental classes are 50 percent less likely than their peers to earn a credential or transfer to a four-year college. Math is often their biggest hurdle, and students are steered into algebra-based remediation regardless of their majors.
Despite wide acknowledgment of problems nationally, systemic changes to remedial education have been slow to materialize. On the micro level, projects from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching  and others have shepherded more students through remedial classes and into college-level courses. But many of these projects reach relatively small numbers of students, and there have been few efforts to "scale up" these ideas. Texas appears to be the first state to adopt such a drastic rethinking of remedial math in all its community colleges.
When the new system, dubbed Mathways, is fully in place, remedial students who intend on majoring in a science- or math-based field will still take a traditional, algebra-based developmental course. But other students might take classes in statistics or quantitative reasoning, subsets of math that could prove more relevant to their careers and present less of a barrier to emerging from remedial education. Students who are undecided on a major are likely to be steered toward statistics, with “bridge courses” available later on if they select a science or math major.
“Not having algebra doesn’t mean you haven’t had rigorous preparation,” said Rey Garcia, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. “What’s the point of taking a course that isn’t going to be useful to you in your work life? As long as we maintain high standards for rigor, that pathway is as meaningful as an algebra-based pathway.”
Starting this fall, six or seven Texas community colleges will start offering the statistics program. The state community college association will provide professional development for instructors and help develop course materials with the goal of spreading that program to all 50 colleges by fall 2013. (El Paso and Houston Community Colleges started offering a similar statistics remediation last fall as part as of a Carnegie pilot project.)
The quantitative reasoning program and a reimagined algebra-based remediation will be rolled out in subsequent years, first in small batches and then statewide.
Garcia said the first-year cost of the project will be around $2 million, a figure that doesn't include instructor salaries. The Texas Community College Association will contribute $300,000, with donors and individual colleges making up the balance.
Glenda Barron, president of Temple Community College, is optimistic that the program will be successful. About 60 percent of Temple students require remediation, with the bulk of those needing help in math. Too often, she said, students are discouraged from pursuing higher education because they are slow to master math skills that might not be very relevant to their career. “We all struggle with how to help those students best,” Barron said. “Mathways, with the three versions to be created, really gives us some hope because it gets students in line to get what they need” and moves them through remediation quickly. Students now often require two or three to students to emerge from remediation, if they’re ever able to at all. Mathways aims to advance many students after a year or less.
The Texas project is inspired by the Carnegie Foundation’s work, developed with the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, in which students needing math remediation weren’t all put on a path toward calculus. But while that work was exciting on its relatively limited basis, Garcia said there was a sense Texas needed to offer a similar program statewide.
“We need to do something at scale,” he said. “We can’t just keep nibbling along the edges.”
Working with the Dana Center, the community college association was able to get all 50 two-year college presidents to sign on.
Kay McClenney is a University of Texas at Austin project director who helped develop a recent report  showing the scope of the remediation problem at the state’s community colleges. She wasn’t directly involved in developing Mathways, but believes the project could mark a dramatic shift in a remediation program that was consistently failing students.
By having every Texas community college on board – hard to achieve in a large state in which each two-year institution is governed separately – she said there could be other benefits.
“If you redesign developmental mathematics statewide,” McClenney said, “you have as a sector a greater possibility of leveraging some state policy goals that will support rather than thwart this at scale.”
The idea seems to be catching on nationally. Bernadine Fong, who heads the Carnegie Foundation’s work with community colleges, said “several” states are considering working with her organization, and Garcia said Texas’ effort could one day be a national model.
But first, he said, Texas is focused on moving more of its own students out of remedial education and onto a path toward a credential and a career.
“It’s ambitious, but our presidents and chancellors felt very strongly that it’s a problem that required an ambitious plan,” Garcia said. “I think everyone’s patience with this issue is running thin and they’re ready to proceed on something at a large scale.”