Strengthening education systems doesn’t happen through sheer force of will, nor does it happen through a single well-respected individual or organization.
Instead, most experienced education professionals recognize that building relationships—and, eventually, consensus—among stakeholders is where change begins. This approach has been central to the Center’s work over the years—and in particular, to broad multisystem, multistate initiatives such as the Dana Center Mathematics Pathways.
When embarking on the Launch Years initiative, Dana Center leaders intentionally designed the project’s early phases to be powered by a central engine of stakeholder engagement. The Launch Years mission is to support students during the critical “launch” years of their last years of high school and first year of postsecondary education.
During the past 20 years, mathematics has become increasingly important to a growing number of professions, especially with the proliferation of data and its impact in business and in our everyday lives. Yet mathematics courses often present roadblocks to student success, particularly in successfully progressing from high school through college math.
Launch Years aims to align K–12 and higher education systems by specifically addressing barriers that keep many students from progressing in their math courses between their junior year of high school and their junior year of college.
Given the focus and potential scale of this work, the Launch Years initiative was intentionally designed around partnerships through a Consensus Panel. Launch Years is an initiative led by the Dana Center in collaboration with Education Strategy Group, the Association of Public & Land-grant Universities, and the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.
In addition to working alongside these organizations, three partner states—Georgia, Texas, and Washington—were also selected to participate from a group of state applicants based on their previous experience and success in mathematics pathways work.
Launch Years kicked off in 2018 with invited convenings of several dozen education leaders from across the nation and the partner states. Representing organizations working in K–12, higher education, research, workforce development, and equity advocacy, Consensus Panel members convened face-to-face and virtually in 2019 and early 2020. These scholars and other leaders outlined the issues and developed recommendations and strategies for dismantling the barriers that prevent students from succeeding in mathematics and progressing to postsecondary and career success.
“When critical friends and organizations band together—agreeing not only that change is necessary but also agreeing on what those changes need to be—then and only then can real systems change begin,” said Amy Getz, Dana Center interim director of K¬–12 policy, strategy, and services.
Bringing Together Experts
In its first meetings, the Consensus Panel focused on outlining the key barriers (such as inequitable opportunities to learn and misuse of mathematics in college admissions criteria) that impede student success, and in particular the success of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students and students from low-income backgrounds. These barriers constitute the Launch Years case for change.
The Panel also identified four opportunities for action that hold promise for transforming students’ experience with mathematics in the final years of high school and first years of postsecondary education. The barriers and opportunities feed into the Launch Years Call to Action, a credo framing and fueling the recommendations that make up the heart of the Launch Years report released in March 2020.
The seven recommendations propose, for stakeholder groups across sectors, what needs to change, ways to bring those changes to scale, and strategies for measuring impact and continuously improving the work.
“The Consensus Panel was intentionally composed of key leaders and experts from higher education, K–12 education, equity advocacy, and industry,” said Getz. “Large-scale transformation requires ongoing sense-making, developing, and advocating for the changes needed to modernize the current structures in K–12 systems, institutions of higher education, and state agencies.”
“Without each individual Consensus Panel member’s voice, sharing their unique areas of expertise, it would not be possible to mobilize the Launch Years work—let alone scale this work over time,” she noted.
Thanks to the intensive engagement of the Consensus Panel members, in spring 2020 the Launch Years collaborative released the report, Launch Years: A New Vision for the Transition from High School to Postsecondary Mathematics.
Consensus in Action: Developing Frameworks for New Mathematics Courses
While the Launch Years report lays out broad recommendations and strategies for transforming mathematics education in the United States, initiative partners are also implementing these ideas “on the ground.”
Intensive Launch Years work is taking place in the partner states of Georgia, Washington, and Texas. Each state is committed to creating clear, relevant pathways from secondary to postsecondary mathematics and to sharing their key learning with states and districts around the country.
In these three states, regional K–12 systems had already begun identifying areas where their mathematics courses were not aligned to postsecondary or workforce needs. Evaluating the frameworks and learning objectives for existing courses—while addressing alignment gaps with new courses—was an opportunity for the Launch Years team to offer clear strategies to improve the mathematics course sequence for students.
Creating new course frameworks for upper-level high school mathematics courses is critical to moving Launch Years ideas from the drawing board to the blackboard—that is, into actual classrooms.
In one of the course frameworks, the Launch Years team identified a need for a fourth-year high school course focused on the transition to college. That framework, “Transition to College Mathematics,” encompasses multiple mathematics pathways while also incorporating research-based supports for students’ social, emotional, and academic development (or SEAD)—an emerging pedagogical approach that research indicates is crucial to fostering student capacity to thrive in school, career, and life.
According to Kathi Cook, Dana Center manager of K–12 online course programs, developing the transition framework was unique in that the expert design team included educators from both K–12 and higher education.
“It has not been common practice to develop K–12 courses with higher education partners,” explained Cook. “Working together across sectors helped our team understand the bigger picture. We could step back in a different way to explore what skills and supports students needed. We could continually ask ourselves, ‘How could we better align to multiple pathways?’ And we were able to capitalize on asking ‘what were our higher education partners seeing that K–12 wasn’t—and vice versa?’”
The design team focused on building consensus, arriving at a strong course framework that both the K–12 and higher education team members believed had value and increased opportunities for students to succeed.
The Transition to College Mathematics course framework is currently being piloted in high schools in Georgia, Texas, and Washington.
What’s Next for Launch Years?
Now in its third year, the Launch Years initiative continues with the Consensus Panel and project working groups developing and disseminating research briefs, course frameworks, and other supports for K–12 education systems, institutions of higher education, and state agencies to use to modernize high school mathematics structures.
Beyond the Transition to College Mathematics course framework already in use, design teams are working on frameworks for a Data Science course and a modernized Algebra II course.
Launch Years teams are also gathering research to inform a new brief on tracking and de-tracking in education. This working group is building consensus with experts across different institutions and sectors to ensure critical voices and perspectives are represented.
“We are taking the long view with the Launch Years work because the current system simply no longer works for today’s students—or the changing needs of the workforce,” said Getz. “At the end of the day, we are driven by a clear vision and a commitment to build consensus. Because, quite simply, we have a moral and professional obligation to create the conditions for every student to succeed.”