Innovative Math Program Boosts Community College Completion Rates
Adam Lanier, an Army veteran with a family to support, could see that he would boost his career prospects by getting a community college degree. But one thing almost stopped him: math anxiety. Because of past experience, he just couldn’t see how he would pass required math coursework.
Mary Engleman was relieved that her plans only called for taking community college business math. But then she set her sights on eventually transferring for a four-year degree, and that meant passing a more advanced college-level math course.
The concerns about math that these students shared were neither overblown nor unfounded. Across the nation, half of students going into higher education go to community colleges. Of those, the overwhelming majority are assigned to remedial (commonly called developmental) math classes designed to bring them up to speed so they can take college math. Instead, they often get stuck there; 80 percent never complete a college-level math course and, thus, can’t graduate. That’s roughly half a million students a year denied a college education — a national crisis that dooms career and life goals and carries profound societal consequences.
Transforming Community College Math with Statway
Lanier and Engleman, however, had the good fortune to enroll at Tacoma Community College (TCC) in Washington state. In 2011, this diverse 8,000-student campus joined what has since grown to a network of 90 community colleges that are successfully battling this crisis. As part of the Carnegie Math Pathways (CMP) network, TCC and the other members are transforming their approach to math. Rather than facing a rigidly prescribed set of math courses, students at TCC have options. They can take the traditional math sequence, consisting of two semesters of developmental algebra, followed by a college-level statistics course. Or they can opt for Statway, a semester-long CMP statistics course resulting in college credit.
Aimed at non-STEM majors, Statway is no less rigorous than other math classes, but its track record stands as a powerful draw: TCC students who choose it — including Lanier and Engleman — complete degrees or certificates at three times the rate of their non-Statway peers.
Statway was developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in direct response to the math-barrier crisis. In the late 2000s, driven by growing nationwide alarm, the foundation brought together teams of researchers and practitioners to find a solution. Facing a problem they knew to be systemic and complex, the teams set out to think big, comprehensively addressing the problem’s multiple facets and root causes. Their work led them to embrace a radical idea: non-STEM majors, they concluded, don’t need traditional math. Specifically, these students don’t need mastery of intermediate algebra. More meaningful and relevant to their lives and careers are statistics and quantitative reasoning.
Karon Klipple, executive director of CMP, which is now based at WestEd, recalls that, at the time, few in the country were even considering such a departure from the norm. When she spoke of the idea at math conferences, “it was a hostile audience.” Now, a decade later, the approach has become mainstream.
Supportive Learning Environment with Students at the Center
But Statway doesn’t just reconceptualize what students learn. It also revamps the approach to how they learn it. Studies done by CMP researchers offered revealing data: almost 70 percent of students who enroll in community college developmental math classes are like Lanier and Engleman — they think that they’re not capable of learning math. Many others feel like they don’t belong, in class or college. These social-emotional factors matter more than experts once thought, Klipple says. It turns out that after baseline math knowledge, feelings of capability and belonging are the biggest predictors of success or failure.
Infused with such insights, Statway uses a pedagogical approach that differs markedly from the typical college lecture mode: professors focus on the students rather than the other way around. An up-front survey helps faculty understand each student’s past experiences and self-concept related to math. Instructional routines and class activities are then tailored to create a supportive learning environment by reducing misconceptions and anxieties that undermine learning.
The first weeks, for example, include readings and discussion of brain science that debunk the “I am not a math person” myth of fixed ability. The focus, instead, is on fostering a growth mindset — that is, students learn that the brain is like a muscle: its cognitive functions, including math skills, are strengthened by workouts.
And Statway, by design, provides strenuous math workouts. The course is accelerated and intense — particularly at TCC, which teaches Statway in one semester rather than the more typical full year. Classes meet for 110 minutes five days a week, not counting additional hours of study time. Engleman remembers thinking at the beginning, “Are you kidding me, we have how much homework?” But she persisted, with an eye on the payoff: Statway allows completion of developmental math requirements and a college-level statistics course in one term.
That efficiency appealed to Lanier as well. But in retrospect, for him, Statway’s strongest selling point was its group structure. From the start, students work together in groups, solving problems collaboratively. The group work is intended to promote relationships, trust, and safety — a kind of esprit de corps where it’s okay to admit being lost or confused because others are too. Your peers and the instructor are there to help, not find fault. “When it’s the teacher at the board, you’re scared to ask questions, you don’t want to feel dumb — and that’s part of why people don’t do well in math,” Lanier explains. With peers, “I didn’t feel judged, as I would with a person in authority, the teacher.”
Tacoma Community College statistics instructor, John Kellermeier, with students.
Statistics Grounded in Real-World Scenarios
For students like Engleman, the “why” of math had never been clear. Statway, however, puts the “why” front and center by anchoring statistical concepts — whether probability, bias detection, or confidence intervals — in relatable, real-world scenarios. Engleman is interested in sustainability, so was engaged right away when problems required analyzing the science and math behind climate change polling. “Who was in that sample? Did they only poll environmentalists?” Polling science also resonated with Lanier, along with sports-related problems such as calculating the win-loss differential between sports teams. Both appreciated that their groups wrestled with problems in advance of class — Statway’s way of giving students the opportunity to “productively struggle” with concepts before the instructor comes into play.
From a faculty perspective, Statway requires a marked departure from the professorial comfort zone of lecturing. Some resist. Others make the shift when they see how students come to life and engage.
For TCC statistics instructor John Kellermeier, there really was no shift. Years earlier he’d thrown up his arms in frustration when his statistics students, again and again, could not reiterate what he’d taught the day before. He stopped lecturing. Instead, he gave students advance reading and problems, often involving social justice scenarios. He would then start class by peppering students: What sticking points had they wrestled with? What paths to solutions had they tried?
In 2010, when TCC sent him to the Carnegie Foundation to learn about Statway, he found his own experience affirmed. He returned to become Statway’s ardent champion at TCC and succeeded at institutionalizing it there. The effort has taken time, involving not only internal changes but a re-working of transfer agreements with other colleges and universities. That accomplished, Statway’s enrollment is mushrooming. Today 10 faculty members are fully trained through CMP’s program of professional development. And, notably, the impact goes beyond Statway. Invigorated by seeing the Statway effect on students, these faculty tend to start teaching differently in their other courses as well.
Kellermeier, now retired, is gratified by these outcomes, which he says made the last years of his career profoundly meaningful. Student data show the larger extent of Kellermeier’s legacy. According to Kendra Feinstein, TCC’s mathematics department chair and a Statway instructor, not only has Statway spiked the rate of degree completion at TCC, but it has done so across racial and ethnic groups, thus narrowing equity and achievement gaps. Among 176 Statway students last year, the success rate was 74 percent for the 64 students of color, 73 percent for the 86 white students, and 81 percent for the 26 whose ethnicity was unknown. These results have thrilled TCC’s leadership, says Feinstein, who reports that in the coming academic year, TCC will introduce more sections of Statway and work with advisors to further increase awareness and student enrollment.
Beyond measure is the sense of exuberance felt by so many who were once paralyzed by the thought of math. Mary Engleman received an ‘A’ in math and subsequently found herself dancing around. But the real shock, she says, was enjoying the course. In study group sessions, “we actually had fun with it. We were doing complicated statistical problems that took up half a page, and we’d say, ‘Look at us, we’re doing math!’”
Lanier echoes that joy and gratitude. “I tell everyone who will listen — sign up for this class. I was terrible at math my whole life. But this never seemed overwhelming, it flowed from beginning to end. If I can do it, I assure you, anybody can.”
Posted on May 17, 2019