Groundbreaking math program dramatically increases college completion rates

Student group in discussion


  • Fewer than 20 percent of community college students placed into math remediation complete the college-level math course needed for graduation.
  • Carnegie Math Pathways enables students to enroll in college-level math courses with built-in remediation.
  • Students in Pathways courses are completing college math requirements at triple the rate and in half the time of those in traditional courses; they are also more than twice as likely to earn a four-year degree.

Ten years ago, Karon Klipple’s math classes at San Diego City College were filled with highly motivated students determined to earn their associate degrees or transfer to a four-year institution. Yet only a minority of those students went on to pass the one college-level math class needed to meet City College’s completion requirements.

“They were such dedicated students, with aspirations to make a better life for themselves,” recalls Klipple. “And yet, for those placed into remediation, fewer than 20 percent ever make it out and complete the single credit-bearing math course they need to graduate.”

Unfortunately, the situation at City College was neither unique nor fleeting. Nationwide, roughly half a million community college students each year find themselves in the same position: their college aspirations dashed for want of passing a required college-level math course. According to Klipple, passing remedial math remains “one of the biggest barriers to college completion.” But these days, as executive director of WestEd’s Carnegie Math Pathways, Klipple leads a robust national network of faculty members, researchers, content experts, and students whose work is changing those outcomes. In fact, researchers have found that Carnegie Math Pathways students are completing college math requirements at triple the rate of those in traditional courses and doing so in half the time. What’s more, they are more than twice as likely as those in traditional math sequences to earn a four-year degree.

Approximately 60 percent of all students enrolling in community colleges are routed into remedial, or developmental, math courses, which they must successfully complete before they can move on to credit-bearing math courses. However, says Klipple, these remedial courses are typically taught in much the same way as the very high school math classes in which the students struggled for years: with a teacher lecturing and solving problems at the blackboard while students sit silently at their desks, often struggling to understand what was going on.

“And here we were,” she adds, “simply presenting more of the same, but at a faster pace.” Not surprisingly, she points out, about 80 percent of students placed in developmental math never go on to fulfill their college math requirement.

A curriculum that connects math to real world problems

In an effort to transform math remediation at the community college level, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching launched Carnegie Math Pathways in 2009. Klipple joined the effort the following year, helping develop the curriculum, design its professional development, and collect data on the program’s outcomes. As the Pathways network grew — to date, it has served approximately 30,000 students at 90 institutions in 18 states — it became clear it needed a home better suited to supporting its burgeoning growth. Pathways joined WestEd in 2017, a move Klipple describes as “a great match with WestEd’s mission, scholarship, intellectual capacity, and infrastructure.”

Pathways’ research-based, holistic approach to developmental math is delivered through two programs, Statway and Quantway, that shorten the traditional remedial math sequence and redesign coursework to make it more relevant to students’ lives and areas of study. Statway is an accelerated statistics course that combines college-level and developmental math, emphasizing math skills essential for a growing number of occupations. Quantway also combines developmental and college-level mathematics to support quantitative reasoning applied to health, personal finance, and civics. Both Statway and Quantway eschew the rote-learning approach that ultimately stymies many students. Instead, the courses promote a deep understanding of math, as students make connections between mathematical concepts and procedures and real-world situations, and engage in productive, increasingly complex mathematical practice.

For example, one Quantway lesson reinforces skills and concepts learned previously — such as understanding large numbers written in different forms, estimating percentages, and using the distributive property of mathematics — by challenging students to use their knowledge to calculate annual and periodic credit card interest rates. The concept of inverse operations and the ability to solve linear equations are taught through a Quantway lesson on calculating blood alcohol levels. And in a Statway lesson, students analyze food nutrition label data as a way of understanding variables and how to visually represent such information on scatterplot graphs.

Students grappling with challenging material

Clearly, this is not watered-down math. According to Klipple, students whose past struggles with math can be traced largely to poor understanding of key concepts find themselves “collaborating with each other in groups and grappling with the material.” As opposed to traditional lecture-heavy classrooms with teachers stationed at the front, instructors wander among the students asking open-ended questions and acting as facilitators to prompt discussion and comprehension.

Data gathered throughout the semester help teachers gauge students’ progress and adapt lessons as needed. The goal, says Klipple, is to help students understand that the process used to solve a problem is more important than simply coming up with the correct answer. She notes that because the lessons are presented in real-world contexts that are familiar and meaningful to students (such as credit card interest rates or food nutrition labels), math concepts and skills that students need to master are more likely to be internalized and “students are significantly more motivated to learn.”

That doesn’t mean math becomes easy. In fact, says Klipple, “In some ways, it’s harder, and teachers often say to students at the beginning of a class, ‘This is very different from what you’ve experienced in other math classes, and it may feel uncomfortable. But trust me — give it a try.’”

For teachers, that means encouraging students to continue to put forth their best effort even when the material becomes challenging. Klipple says that fostering that kind of “productive persistence” is effective because it addresses students’ beliefs about themselves as mathematical learners. “It’s so powerful to hear a student say, ‘I never thought I could learn math but now I know I can.’ It completely shifts their understanding of who they are and opens up avenues to the future they never thought existed.”

“Game-changing” outcomes

Johanna Duncan-Poitier, senior vice chancellor in the Office of Community Colleges and the Education Pipeline with the State University of New York (SUNY), describes Carnegie Math Pathways as a “game changer.” Two of SUNY’s colleges, Onondaga and Westchester Community Colleges, were part of the original pilot sites for Carnegie Math Pathways, and, following SUNY’s Remediation Taskforce in 2012, Duncan-Poitier supported faculty from Rockland Community College (RCC) to explore taking Pathways to scale in the SUNY system.

Success was evident early on, when, in 2013, the first cohort of students enrolled in Quantway classes at RCC fulfilled their developmental math requirement at a rate 46 percent higher than their peers. Also, according to Duncan-Poitier, SUNY’s Suffolk County Community College on Long Island has achieved passing rates up to almost 77 percent in one semester. Although the data are important, notes Duncan-Poitier, it is the impact that the curriculum, pedagogy, and productive persistence has on both faculty and students that makes Pathways a powerful tool for student success.

From two colleges in 2012, Carnegie Math Pathways is now being offered at 28 two- and four-year SUNY institutions, with more than 250 faculty, administrators, and advisors trained in its progressive methodology. SUNY’s commitment to Pathways, notes Duncan-Poitier, has focused on getting faculty across the system engaged in an innovative way to provide math instruction and then supporting their efforts with high-quality, statewide and regional professional development opportunities. “At the end of the day, it’s a matter of investing in the faculty to implement a highly effective, research-based model,” she says. A grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is helping SUNY scale up Pathways to serve more than 1,500 students each semester, with the goal of impacting more than 20,000 students in the next several years.

According to Klipple, leadership such as Duncan-Poitier’s is a key element of Pathways’ success. “Real, meaningful change occurs when administrators support and invest in their faculty,” she says.

Klipple notes that Pathways also benefits from the expertise of an even larger network of participants that includes not only administrators and faculty, but also researchers and curriculum experts all working cooperatively. Through this networked community, participating institutions receive professional development and ongoing mentoring for faculty, along with strategic planning support to implement and scale the courses at their respective sites. And, says Klipple, Carnegie Math Pathways collects a wealth of classroom- and network-level data “that we gather, analyze, and share within the network to guide our decision making.”

Moving forward, Pathways will continue working with its robust network to refine the curriculum and help students overcome math remediation barriers and pursue their college dreams. As Duncan-Poitier reflects, “Quantway and Statway have been essential to SUNY’s completion agenda — put simply, they give students one of the best chances at success.”