Improving remedial math won’t be easy. But a complex redesign from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is showing solid early returns.
The foundation’s Community College Pathways Program uses research to shape a new approach to teaching developmental mathematics, which is one of higher education’s biggest stumbling blocks . The program features intense collaboration between professors and students and a focus on professional development for remedial math faculty members. The result is a far cry from passive lectures of either the online or traditional classroom varieties.
In a report released today Carnegie tracked the performance of an initial group of 1,133 students in one of its two remedial math programs, which is dubbed Statway . The students were enrolled last year at 19 community colleges and two state universities in five states. Slightly more than half (51 percent) of the group completed the one-year track, which includes college-level work for which the students earned credit.
In contrast, only 6 percent of students in remedial math courses at those same institutions earned credits in college-level math in one year. And that number only rose to 24 percent after four years.
"Statway colleges have tripled the success rate in half the time," said Anthony S. Bryk, Carnegie’s president.
The program didn't cherry-pick its sample, either. Roughly three-quarters of students in the Carnegie cohort placed at least two levels below college-level math. More than half were black or Hispanic, most were first-generation college students and 45 percent grew up in an environment where a language other than English was spoken.
Carnegie researchers are confident about even better results for the new program, which they plan to expand to other colleges and more students.
“We expect to be able to move the target further,” said Bryk. “This is just the first step.”
Holistic and Intensive
The project features two relatively straightforward remedial pathways that take one year to complete. Both include face-to-face and online learning. They replace the “maze of possible course options” that is typical of remedial math at most colleges, and which can take as long as two years or more to finish. And the Carnegie pathways include college credit at the end.
The second of the two, which is called Quantway, is being attempted at eight community colleges. But those students began last spring, so the data are incomplete.
Both approaches emphasize teaching mathematical concepts in ways that students can apply to real-life situations. The goal is to make clear the connections between math and ideas and statistical facts, according to the report, rather than focusing primarily on procedural competence.
“No more rote memorization of seemingly meaningless concepts,” said Karon Klipple, Statway’s director.
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For example, an instructor might teach algebraic equations by having students calculate a car’s speed, using tangible variables like air friction instead of the abstract X, Y and Z. Or students might use consumer ratings of the ingredients in cereals to illustrate linear formulas.
There is a holistic feel to the program. Math sometimes cannot be taught in isolation, the report said. So the pathways include language and literacy components, which are woven into instructional material and classroom activities.
Another key to the approach is that students bring their own knowledge and experience to a collaborative learning experience with their professors and peers. And as in the modular style  of remedial course, the instructor is more of facilitator than a lecturer, Klipple said.
Statway is intensive for both faculty and students. To succeed a student must spend four to five hours a week on the work, Carnegie researchers said. And instructors must constantly hone their teaching style, using data to inform the process.
Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, praised the Carnegie program for its emphasis on the professional development of math instructors. That has long lagged, he said, particularly among remedial math faculty.
Boylan, who sits on the program’s board, also said the pathways were designed using solid research about what works in remediation. “People are systematically being taught how to teach math in an effective way," he said.
For Carnegie’s remedial reboot to have a big impact, however, Boylan said four-year institutions would need to honor transfer credits students earn for the last part of the one-year program. Whether most will is unclear.
“Universities have to accept those credits in lieu of college math for this to work,” said Boylan.