If this fall resembles past autumns, about half of the new students entering Texas's community colleges will have to repeat a high school class. Most of those will have to retake a math class—some will even retake two—before they can move on to intermediate algebra, the first class in the sequence that counts toward a degree.
Nationwide, remedial math is a major academic barrier to community-college students graduating. But a new partnership between the University of Texas (Austin) and the state's community colleges—called the New Mathways Project—aims to get more students up to speed, faster, by rethinking how math is taught.
Tinkering with the traditional sequence of math courses has long been a controversial idea in academic circles, with proponents of algebra saying it teaches valuable reasoning skills. But many two-year college students are adults seeking a credential that will improve their job prospects. "The idea that they should be broadly prepared isn't as compelling as organizing programs that help them get a first [better-paying] job, with an eye on their second and third," says Uri Treisman, executive director of the Charles A. Dana Center at UT Austin, which spearheads the New Mathways Project.
The actual content of algebra—things like quadratic equations—shows up in only about 10 percent of occupations, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. And there's no reason to believe that other, less abstract kinds of math can't also teach valuable reasoning skills.
Treisman's team has worked with community-college faculty to create three alternatives to the traditional math sequence. The first two pathways, which are meant for humanities majors, lead to a college-level class in statistics or quantitative reasoning. The third, which is still in development, will be meant for science, technology, engineering, and math majors, and will focus more on algebra. All three pathways are meant for students who would typically place into elementary algebra, just one level below intermediate algebra.
The courses for humanities majors don't jettison algebra entirely, and they're still academically rigorous. "Our view is that, what is the math that people need for a broad program of study?" Treisman says. "So when we say statistics, we mean statistics that includes the algebra that most students will need for their other courses."
Students in the statistics-focused program that debuted at six community colleges last year took one class on basic math concepts and a companion class on study skills during their first semester. In their second semester, they took a college-level statistics class. The math classes weren't lectures; they were organized more like guided homework sessions, with students puzzling over practice problems together.
Treisman believes math educators are becoming more open to change. Last January, the outgoing president of the American Mathematical Society called for revising math pathways for community-college students.
Of the 145 students who started Texas's two-semester program last fall, about half completed the college-level course in the spring. There isn't yet complete, independently evaluated data comparing the trajectory of New Mathways students to those in traditional remedial math. But at the very least, the basic idea holds a lot of promise. "If a student comes and is deficient in one area, that area is almost always math. By far, math. And students tell us, 'Oh, I can't do math. I've never been successful in math,' " says Glenda Barron, president of Temple College in Temple, Texas. Yet Barron hears something different from New Mathways students. "I've had student after student say to me, 'Why have we not been taught this way before?' "
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.