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There is a crisis in our traditional remedial mathematics education. Many, likely most, math faculty members have already heard much about this crisis. But many faculty members outside math departments are unaware of it and how it negatively affects them, which it probably does. Once you are aware of it, you may want to contribute to solving it, which you possibly can.
The basis of the crisis is that 60 percent of new freshmen in the United States are assessed as unprepared for college-level work, most commonly in math, as Mari Watanabe-Rose, Daniel Douglas and I summarize in a recent paper on the topic (a paper that provides citations for much of the research reported in this article). Only about half of students who start taking remedial math ever complete it, and many students, though they are required to do so, never take remedial math at all. Evidence even shows that students assessed as needing lengthy remedial math courses, while accepted to college, are less likely to actually begin it, contributing to what is known as “summer melt.”
The end result is that students assessed as needing remedial math are far less likely to graduate than students who have been assessed as being college ready. For example, at the City University of New York, only 7 percent of the new freshmen assessed as needing remedial math graduate from a community college in three years vs. 28 percent of other students. Being assessed as needing remedial math (which most commonly consists of elementary and/or intermediate, as opposed to college, algebra), may be the single largest academic block to students graduating in our country.
So if you’re not a math faculty member, why should you care? If huge percentages of the new students coming to your college are failing remedial math or never taking it, how does that affect you? Let me count the ways.
First, of course, even though they are not necessarily students in your classes, or majoring in your discipline, they are students at your college, and you are likely to have some compassion for them and wish that they could be successful in their math courses. Students who are assessed as needing remedial math are disproportionately students from underrepresented groups, the first in their families to go to college and from families with limited financial resources. Graduating from college will, on average, significantly enhance the quality of life of these students and their families. Students who do not obtain a degree earn less, are more likely to default on their student debt, pay fewer taxes, are less healthy and are more likely to go to prison -- all of which can harm not only the students and their families themselves but also hurt you as a taxpayer.
In addition, the United States is only 11th in the world in terms of the proportion of young adults with college degrees. Meanwhile, the percentage of jobs that require a college degree is growing, and the number of such degrees that we produce is projected to be increasingly inadequate. So the graduation block of remedial math may be harming our country’s economic growth and competitiveness.
But perhaps such consequences are all too vague or delayed to have much impact on you. Let us consider some consequences of students getting past the remedial math block (or not) that may be closer to home.
Students who have been assessed as needing remedial math usually don’t reach the point of being allowed to take college-level math courses -- or nonmath, college-level courses that require math as a prerequisite or co-requisite. That means that if you teach such courses, your enrollments are probably lower because such students can’t enroll in them. And if those students drop out or transfer to another college, then virtually no matter what you teach you’ve lost enrollment for your courses. (Follow-up data from our research on a successful alternative to traditional remedial math show that students assigned to traditional remediation are indeed more likely to transfer or drop out than students assigned instead to college-level statistics with extra support.) And with lower enrollment comes the lower probability that courses will continue to be offered, lower operating budgets for departments, lower probability of tenure, lower budgets for hiring part-time faculty and lower numbers of full-time faculty in a department.
Moreover, in terms of your institution as a whole, lower enrollment can mean lower total funds for the institution because it receives less tuition or government support. The majority of the states now tie public higher education funding to graduation rates (performance-based funding). Currently in the United States, only about 61 percent of all new freshmen in bachelor’s degree programs receive their bachelor’s degree within six years from any institution (not just the one at which they started), and only 39 percent of new freshmen in associate’s degree programs receive any degree -- associate’s or bachelor’s -- within six years from any institution (not just the one at which they started). What is the percentage for your institution? It may not be as high as you have been led to believe. And could remedial-math reform at your institution boost that percentage?
And what if your college is one that wants to help fill its seats with transfer students? Not completing remedial work can hurt a student’s ability to transfer. At CUNY, students assessed as needing remediation can’t transfer into, or be admitted to, a baccalaureate program. California has similar challenges.
But, you may say, I don’t want students who cannot pass remedial math in my courses, because they won’t be able to do well in, or perhaps even pass, my course. Let’s dig down into that statement.
First, such a statement may be based on an assumption that students who are placed into remedial math are students with significant limitations in how to learn, at least in how to learn algebra. However, research now shows that the placement tests and other mechanisms for deciding which students do not know remedial math are often wrong. Students sometimes don’t realize the import of the test and so don’t prepare for it or take it seriously when they are indicating their answers. Perhaps a minimal brushup is all they need to do well in a college-level course, not a full-semester remedial course. Or perhaps a student wasn’t feeling well the day of the placement test or was late getting to the testing site due to a transportation problem.
Judith Scott-Clayton, associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, has found that 25 percent of students assigned to remedial math could have passed a college-level math course with at least a B if they had instead been assigned directly to that course. Placement tests are not perfect predictors of who knows something and can make use of that knowledge, and who does not and cannot. The cutoff scores for remediation versus college-level math are somewhat arbitrary, are set differently by different colleges and can have many false negatives and false positives no matter where they’re set.
But, you might say, given so many students don’t pass remedial math, that must show that most students placed in it should not have been put in a higher-level math course. However, even failure to pass remedial math doesn’t necessarily indicate that a student is limited in his or her ability to learn math. Students don’t pass these classes for many reasons that don’t have anything to do with the student’s ability.
One is simply that they do not take these classes -- the thought of having to take a course they took in high school is too aversive, paying for a course that will not give them any college credits is too hard to swallow and the goal of graduation just seems too far away. None of that has anything to do with ability, but everything to do with motivation.
Students also may not pass remedial courses because of poor teaching. Remedial math is more likely than, say, calculus, to be taught by a rotating cast of part-time faculty. Some of those faculty members may have insufficient training or inadequate time to dedicate to student success. And students taking remedial math may feel stigmatized by being identified as “remedial” -- as only capable of high school courses. So they may be less motivated to work in the class, as some evidence suggests.
Finally, saying that you do not want students who do not pass remedial math taking your own college-level course assumes, particularly if you do not teach math, that whatever limitations these students have regarding remedial math are limitations that carry into other courses as well. But many students placed into remedial math are able to pass their science and other general education requirements without ever having taken remedial math.
However, what if you believe that any student graduating from your college, even those majoring in, say, English literature, should be able to demonstrate a knowledge of math? Then you need to consider whether what you think is important is knowledge of algebra (the traditional focus of remedial math) or rather a facility with the numbers and quantitative expressions that most college graduates are likely to encounter. Because if it’s the latter, research has shown that students are more likely to pass courses with such material (e.g., statistics) than traditional remedial courses, which can contain topics such as quadratic equations and are considered, at least by some people, to be less connected to the quantitative aspects of our daily lives.
So do we have to keep putting so many otherwise successful students into remedial math (algebra) only for them to avoid the course or fail it -- and thus never enroll in our or our department’s courses or leave our institution entirely? No. Based on rigorous empirical research, we can place students using high school grades, even self-reported high school grades, which predict future performance in quantitative courses better than do tests. We can provide students with just the remedial instruction needed to pass their college-level courses, in combination with those college-level courses (what is known as co-requisite remediation). And we can allow students to take courses in statistics and/or quantitative reasoning instead of algebra to satisfy their general education requirement (unless, of course, a student needs algebra for his or her major).
Yet such changes are being made only sometimes, and slowly. For example, at CUNY, four colleges are actively involved in remedial math reform (three of them through the Project for Relevant and Improved Mathematics Education, PRIME, funded by the Teagle Foundation), but 10 CUNY colleges still offer remedial math.
Maybe it is time for nonmath faculty to become more involved in this issue. At your college or university, does each department get to decide what course or courses all the institution’s students should take from that department? Or do all faculty members get together and decide, as a group, what skills and knowledge each graduate from that institution should know and be able to do, and then design courses consistent with those decisions? If it is the latter, are the nonmath faculty weighing in on the nature of the math requirement? Particularly if that math requirement is preventing potentially successful students from being in your classes? And particularly if that requirement isn’t needed to pass college-level non-STEM classes? Or even some STEM classes?
So if you are a college or university faculty member who is not in math, know that what is going on in many math departments can be directly hurting your own department, and possibly your own teaching preferences -- in addition to potentially harming the lives of students and your local economy. Perhaps your institution, department or courses already have all the enrollment and revenue that you want, and perhaps your institution’s graduation rates are already stellar. But if that isn’t all the case, maybe you or your department should get involved in what is happening in math. It’s up to you.