Algebra Doesn't Have to Be Scary

Community colleges are trying—often successfully—to make math more accessible to their students.
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.

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Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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