Algebra Doesn't Have to Be Scary

Community colleges are trying—often successfully—to make math more accessible to their students.
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Brad C Bower/AP Photo

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 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 algebra. She earned a math 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 Tacoma Community College, 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 high school algebra and 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 in the context of public debates and questions they'll 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 providerNovoEd.

Thirty-three campuses in 11 states now are implementing Statway and 11 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.

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Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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