“For many students—like the policemen I’ve interviewed, the firemen, the EMTs, the interior designers who have been taking algebra courses five times and learning how to factor trinomials—it’s time to stop that nonsense and teach them statistics, modeling, quantitative reasoning, and the mathematics that mathematicians actually use when they solve real-world problems.”
– Professor Uri Treisman
In the near-decade since its inception, the mathematics pathways movement has changed the way college-level math is taught for millions of postsecondary students in the United States. Mathematics pathways are a rapidly growing national movement in colleges and universities that aligns math courses more closely to students’ intended majors and future careers—with particular focus on accelerating underprepared students’ entry into credit–bearing coursework.
While studies are still ongoing to determine long-term results for students, the changes introduced by math education leaders and initiatives such as the Dana Center Mathematics Pathways (DCMP) have shown a substantial and continuing national impact. The DCMP began in 2013 and, to date, has conducted extensive work in more than 30 states. Its primary goal is to accelerate students’ successful completion of their first college-level mathematics course during their first year while maintaining the academic rigor of their learning.
As with all national shifts in education that challenge existing structures, the mathematics pathways movement has faced its share of resistance. That is why the Dana Center has focused on creating change at the systemic level, bringing a blend of policy and practice to help two and four-year institutions implement pathways.
Forging Agreements, Growing a Movement
The Dana Center Mathematics Pathways initiative began, predictably enough, in Texas. To build consensus among disparate groups, the Dana Center began by bringing together stakeholders in the higher education community.
Dr. Martha Ellis, now the Dana Center’s interim managing director, was associate vice chancellor at The University of Texas System in 2012. She met that year with Dana Center founder and Executive Director Uri Treisman, along with others, to discuss a new approach to the higher ed math system in the state.
“We all knew the requirement of College Algebra for all was not working for many students in the state of Texas,” Ellis said. “College presidents were perplexed with that reality, but did not know what to do. When mathematics pathways were presented by Uri to a group of college presidents, the concept made a lot of sense. Mathematics pathways checked the boxes of what leaders cared about, which included preparing the future workforce, supporting students in the ability to transfer across institutions, and ultimately empowering student success.”
After those initial meetings, the Dana Center and two-year college leaders from across the state (represented by the Texas Association of Community Colleges) forged a 10-year agreement to move mathematics education in the state toward the multiple pathways model.
The DCMP leaders opted not to limit the consensus-building portions of the work to either a top-down approach focused on policymakers or a grassroots campaign focused on winning over math faculty. Rather, they chose to undertake a full-spectrum effort that used a balanced combination of state and institutional policy, faculty ownership, and student-oriented pedagogy. This approach provided the likeliest path to avoiding the pitfalls experienced by so many other reform initiatives.
In the ensuing years, the DCMP expanded its efforts across Texas while also making inroads in other states. Engagements with college and university systems in Massachusetts, Arkansas, Michigan, and Colorado showed promise as institutions began to implement new math pathways as alternatives to the traditional algebra-calculus sequence.
The focus on alternate math pathways was, for many stakeholders, also joined by new understandings of how developmental—historically called “remedial”—math education connected to student success. The “corequisite” model began gaining attention as a more successful, accelerated way to get students into and through their gateway mathematics courses, and advocates and reform movements like the DCMP began incorporating those approaches, into their models and design principles.
100 Years of Momentum and a Need to Modernize
Until the mathematics pathways movement began to gain momentum, little had changed over nearly a century in the way mathematics was taught at the postsecondary level. Yet the needs of workforce and industry have shifted dramatically in that time.
Historically, students entering college—whether they were a physics or dance major—were forced to take College Algebra as a basic degree requirement. Each year, according to The Case for Mathematics Pathways (DCMP, 2019), only half of students across the country manage to pass the course. That is why some researchers have pointed to College Algebra as one of the most significant barriers to degree completion.
Compounding the algebra issue, an estimated 60 percent of incoming students at two-year colleges are placed into at least one developmental math course each year. These remedial courses are required before students can enroll in College Algebra and, depending on assessment of students’ mathematical skills, can involve multiple semesters of work.
Of the students placed in developmental math courses at two-year colleges, only 33 percent complete the remedial sequence and only one-fifth complete a credit-level course over three years. Four-year colleges have similarly troubling numbers, with a third of students in public institutions placed at least one remedial math course.
“I took a developmental class and it was almost the same as high school, so I just dropped out,” said David Hively, a Temple College student in 2016. “It demotivates you from doing anything else. If you don’t have your math, you can’t go up into higher classes for, you know, English or history or other courses.”
Results are most troubling for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation college students. These students are vastly overrepresented in developmental math courses and are thereby disproportionately impacted by the failure rates in these courses. Researchers estimate that one in four students placed in developmental courses could pass a college-level mathematics course with a “B” or better if placed directly into the class and provided extra, individualized support.
“We should not be blaming students. Institutions of higher education had set up structures that we thought were the right thing to do for students, and faculty were working hard to help students be successful,” Ellis explained. “But the traditional model was not working and, therefore, the structures needed to change.”
Of the approximately 50 percent of students who pass College Algebra, only a tenth enroll in Calculus, the gateway for earning degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
The idea that algebra serves as a barrier or “gatekeeper” to so many students troubles many in the mathematics community. “As a mathematician, I hate the idea that my beloved subject is a block for people’s lives, and we’ve frankly had enough of it,” said Treisman. “The courses that students often take are shaped more by the weight of history than they are by the needs of today’s workplace or today’s majors.”
Students seeking degrees outside of STEM—whether business, medicine, literature, or data science—need different types of mathematics, such as statistics or quantitative reasoning, which are more relevant to their programs of study. And yet many students, who do not need calculus for their degrees, have been required to take College Algebra. It became very clear that institutions of higher education needed to develop, and encourage some students to pursue, non-algebraically intensive math pathways that are equally rigorous and aligned to their futures.
Certainly, changes at this scale are substantial, as they are structural changes. Overcoming a century of momentum around how math should be taught is a tall order. It involves thoughtful coordination and broad-scale consensus among an exceptionally wide range of stakeholders within and across institutions. Math faculty, campus leaders, student advisors, and instructors from partner disciplines—areas of study, such science or medicine, which rely on students’ mathematical training—often need to be convinced to modify and coordinate their practices.
The DCMP team has learned over the past decade that mathematics pathways are not only about math. They are about ensuring every facet of the student experience is accounted for—from transitioning into pathways from high school and academic advising to student mindsets and motivation. Therefore, the DCMP developed new curricular resources, along with the professional development and training necessary to prepare instructors for new teaching models.
According to Dr. Stephanie Doyen, mathematics professor at Lone Star College–Kingwood near Houston, students need a variety of active learning instructional models to keep them engaged and help them make connections. “Most of the problems we do involve real-world situations. We used the equation for body mass index to talk about order of operations,” Doyen said. “We also used blood alcohol content level to explain order of operations. It’s very different in that there is a lot of student interaction—the active student learning. They are involved. They are talking. The students can’t hide in this class.”
Creating Structural Change to Open New Pathways
Math pathways implementation requires changes in policy and practice. Implementation means instructional leadership must modify degree requirements while ensuring that new degree paths are equivalent to those they replace. Additionally, it means having advisors change traditional practices around student guidance and placement.
The introduction of mathematics pathways, however, has created the sometimes uncomfortable reality that old assumptions about how math is taught and learned must evolve.
According to Amy Getz, then higher education systems implementation manager for the Dana Center, the core challenge in the early Dana Center work was asking stakeholders to make a paradigm change in how they viewed math programs.
“They’d always thought about math programs as discrete courses,” said Getz. “Instead, we were asking people to step back and think about it more systemically and think about it as a pathway—thinking about where students were starting from, where they’re coming from, and where they were going. In a way, on paper, it doesn’t look like that big of a difference. But it’s a huge shift in your thinking and in your perspective.”
According to Getz, institutions’ reliance on College Algebra as a requirement across almost all degree programs, regardless of relevance, caused the course itself to often become overly broad in its focus.
“The systemic issue was also a huge mindset change because most faculty don’t really feel empowered to change systems,” said Getz. “We helped faculty set into motion a systemic movement by giving them more power to influence and shift some of the obstacles they faced across their institutions. It’s this ripple effect that has helped math pathways gain momentum nationally. I think people have been surprised at the changes we could accomplish.”
The confluence of shifting policy, heightened focus on building more equitable opportunities for students of color, increasing buy-in among campus and system leaders, and faculty empowerment has proven to be a powerful combination in the pathways movement. As more stakeholders have become convinced of the benefits—namely, improved completion rates—interest in math pathways implementation continues to grow.
By 2017, the Dana Center Mathematics Pathways initiative had provided support to the 23 institutions of the California State University System in launching corequisite mathematics programs. In 2018, the initiative launched in four additional states. The DCMP provided support to 19 two- and four-year institutions in California’s Central Valley, 16 public institutions in North Carolina, 28 institutions in Georgia, and 7 two-year colleges in Maine. By the end of 2019, the DCMP launched new system-level work supporting all community colleges and public universities in Connecticut and nine universities and community colleges in Missouri. It also extended prior work in Arkansas in a bid to implement math pathways statewide.
“We are committed to growing and normalizing math pathways across the country in the years ahead. The data is now illustrating the benefits we had hoped to see when we first met years ago,” Ellis said. “Math pathways allow more students to be successful in mathematics, leading to greater social and economic mobility for themselves, their families, and their communities.”