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Learning Better Together: Tribal Colleges See Increased Success with Carnegie Math Pathways

Posted on 08.05.2020

Teachers convening


  • Carnegie Math Pathways is an innovative college math program designed to accelerate students’ progress through developmental and college-level course requirements.
  • Nineteen of the nation’s 35 accredited tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are in the Carnegie Math Pathways network.
  • Across the participating TCUs, students’ math success in the Pathways is 25 percent higher on average than in their original courses.

Note: This article was written before the coronavirus prompted school closures. This blog post from April 2020 shares how Carnegie Math Pathways has been helping its national network of math faculty with the abrupt transition to distance learning, as it prepares to launch online versions of all Pathways courses in fall 2020.


Earle Crosswait was deeply concerned in fall 2017 when the students in his Introduction to Statistics class at Michigan’s Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College (SCTC) bombed their probability exam. They were in danger of failing and perhaps becoming part of a grim statistic: every year, half a million community college students nationwide can’t graduate because they have failed to complete a single college-level math class.

Like many other instructors, Crosswait knew his class was riddled with math anxiety — the paralysis of “I am not a math person,” instilled by past experience — that commonly afflicts community college students. He also knew that for some in his class, this mindset was compounded by low expectations that they, as Native American students, had encountered and internalized.

That semester Crosswait, who is SCTC’s academic specialist in math, had begun trying out an alternative math model, but it clearly wasn’t helping enough. By chance, right at that time, WestEd’s Carnegie Math Pathways — an innovative program developed with a laser focus on solving the nation’s math-barrier crisis in order to increase college graduation rates — began expanding its network of some 90 community colleges. It was doing so, in part, by reaching out to tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). SCTC signed on to begin Carnegie Math Pathways courses in spring 2018 — a decision that would end up profoundly affecting Crosswait’s thinking and practice. “Carnegie Math Pathways gave me a whole other toolbox to dip into for helping my students learn.”

He scrapped his lesson plans for the rest of the year and immediately started implementing the collaborative-learning pedagogy of the Pathways. “After a week or two of pushback, the students loved it.” By the end of two semesters teaching Carnegie Math Pathways courses, that enthusiasm was strikingly reflected in student outcomes. “We had 70 percent success in the spring, and 80 percent in the fall,” says Crosswait, in terms of students having a grade of C or better — in contrast with past rates of 30 to 40 percent.

An innovative approach to developmental math

The Carnegie Math Pathways program reconceptualizes both what students learn in math and how they learn it. Its two research-based courses — Statway and Quantway, collectively referred to as the Pathways — embody the radical idea that non-STEM majors don’t need certain traditional requirements, notably mastery of all of intermediate algebra. More meaningful and relevant to their lives and careers are statistics (Statway) and quantitative reasoning (Quantway). In contrast with traditional developmental math, the Pathways are accelerated and rigorous college-credit courses. Given their challenging pace, the courses provide extra support as needed, enabling students to make the leap to college math credit without floundering in no-credit, catch-up courses.

The approach takes direct aim at students’ belief that they can’t learn math, along with the sense among many that they don’t belong in math class or even college. These social-emotional factors matter more than experts once thought, reports Carnegie Math Pathways executive director Karon Klipple. Research indicates that after basic math knowledge, a student’s sense of capability and belonging are the biggest predictors of success or failure.[i]

Infused with such insights, the Pathways embody a pedagogical approach that dispenses with the conventional college lecture mode. Instead, students, not the teacher, are the center of instruction. Class activities are tailored to create a supportive learning environment, reducing anxieties that undermine learning. From the start, students work together in groups, collaboratively wrestling with real-world problems relevant to their lives — for example, analyzing the validity of a climate change poll or calculating the win-loss differential between sports teams to learn statistical concepts such as probability or bias detection. A camaraderie develops, says Klipple, evolving into trusting relationships in which it’s okay to admit being lost or confused.

Game-changing success for Pathways students

The results have been nothing short of game-changing. Nationwide, students in these Pathways are completing college math requirements at triple the rate and in half the time of those in traditional math sequences — a finding that holds true across racial and ethnic groups, thus narrowing equity and achievement gaps. Further, a six-year comparison study showed Pathways students roughly doubling their rates of graduation and transfer to four-year colleges over students in traditional developmental math courses.

One key to the program’s success, says Klipple, is “investing in and empowering” faculty such as Crosswait, who are hungry to connect with others who are similarly innovative and determined to make a difference and transform lives. At annual Carnegie Math Pathways institutes, participating faculty engage in intensive professional learning and planning to launch and implement the Pathways. They learn that the Carnegie Math Pathways approach is not formulaic but, rather, designed to be adapted by faculty to meet their specific students’ needs. Supporting implementation is a national professional network in which faculty and administrators, as well as researchers and curriculum experts, engage in ongoing sharing of ideas and practices.

Learning better together

For participating TCU faculty — whose desire for connectedness is acute given their colleges’ small size, often remote locations, and limited resources — the institutes have provided an unprecedented opportunity to come together with colleagues from other tribal colleges to explore meaningful math in the context of a Native community. The faculty found a common resonance with the Carnegie Math Pathways program and a shared sense that its approach inherently reflects tribal cultural values.

Nationwide, students in these pathways are completing college math requirements at triple the rate and in half the time of those in traditional math sequences.

“Math class has traditionally been something where you are accountable to the teacher and to yourself,” says Belin Tsinnajinnie, who joined the network while teaching at a tribal college. That’s a narrow way of teaching math, he says. With the Pathways, he sees the instructional lens broadened to include the classroom community of peers. “That’s a perspective that’s held Native communities for thousands of years — being accountable and responsible for wanting to serve our people and serve our Nation.” The Pathways’ group work, he says, acknowledges the importance of each person’s sharing of prior knowledge and ideas. “That allows each individual to be an important contributor to the group and creates a setting where [students’] knowledge and strengths are seen as key parts of their mathematical learning.”

This tribal resonance was motivating and inspirational for Crosswait. Returning from the Pathways’ initial training, he and his math colleague, Wes Rich, launched Quantway and Statway at SCTC in spring 2018. Teaching Statway, Crosswait immediately decided to take advantage of the program’s adaptability by working with his students to “make it our own” by developing a cultural contract that framed the class within the context of the Seven Grandfather Teachings. Deeply rooted in Native culture, these teachings — wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility, and truth — are principles for living a good life and having greater success within the tribe.

Crosswait’s intent was to have the contract create a sense of community and give students power in the classroom from day one. He wanted students to be aware from the outset that this class “wasn’t going to be like math 099,” a now defunct developmental algebra course that “was much like high school math, where they experienced trauma.” His Statway students are in groups at communal tables, not in rows. During the first week, they discuss brain science and how people learn. “We talk about feelings, attitudes. I bring food, and we eat together.”

Students discuss the seven teachings; make wall posters reflecting specific, observable behaviors and attitudes that honor each teaching; and provide daily reminders and motivators to stay connected. The posters thus help create class norms for interacting with one another. One of those norms played out when, one day, a student decided to leave class rather than face a group quiz for which he wasn’t prepared. He felt he couldn’t contribute and didn’t want to let the group down. But the other students pointed to the bravery poster, telling him that the brave thing to do is to stay even when you’re not prepared, that together they will all learn this. “So together,” Crosswait says, “we’re trying to live better, learn better.”

“Here I belong”

With Statway, Crosswait’s students have had significantly higher pass rates than in his previous classes. He credits persistence for the turnaround. “They stuck it out,” he says. “And they did because of the way we approach the class. It’s the community.” In written reflections, students convey what made this class different. The contract, wrote one, “makes you feel less awkward and more likely to help others and receive help.” Another wrote that the contract “changed my sense of ownership in the class, in the way that I wanted my group members to succeed and I wanted to help them succeed.” Yet another wrote: “I’m usually quiet and don’t voice my opinion, but I feel like that is different now, I feel like here I belong.”

To belong and matter in class was a revelation for students who had come to expect otherwise. One student told Crosswait about her discomfort when they talked about the mathematical concept slope. It was taught in high school, but when she had told the teacher she didn’t understand it, “He said I’m a tribal student and I get per cap [basic needs payments] so I don’t need to know that.”

Nineteen of the nation’s 35 accredited TCUs are now in the Carnegie Math Pathways network. Across these colleges, students’ math success in the Pathways is, on average, 25 percent higher than in their original courses. As at SCTC, students at other TCUs report increased confidence and engagement. This is especially gratifying to faculty like Tsinnajinnie, who see their math teaching in larger terms: they are educating future tribal leaders.

Tsinnajinnie explains that the Pathways approach is well aligned with the mission of tribal colleges. He references the long history of education being used to assimilate Indigenous people, “to strip them of their identities and higher knowledge systems and align them with white mainstream notions.” Counteracting this history, says Tsinnajinnie, education in tribal colleges is “an exercise in tribal sovereignty,” and the Pathways’ value system supports the philosophy of self-determination. Instead of learning math “to fulfill externally enforced requirements,” he says, the purpose shifts “to being accountable to the people in your community.”

For Crosswait, the great reward has been sparking student empowerment. “Once students feel potent, once they get those first successes under their belt, they’re ready to go,” he says.

Seeing students flourish has caused Crosswait to reflect on how he thinks about and expresses aspirations for them. “I used to say, ‘I don’t expect you to become a statistician, just a good citizen.’” But he has come to believe he was lowering the bar. “Now I say, ‘I want you to become a statistician. I want you to take my job.’”


[i] Krumm, A. E., Beattie, R., Takahashi, S., D’Angelo, C., Feng, M., & Cheng, B. (2016). Practical measurement and productive persistence: Strategies for using digital learning system data to drive improvement. Journal of Learning Analytics, 3(2), 116–138.

Silva, E., & White, T. (2013). Pathways to improvement: Using psychological strategies to help college students master developmental math. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Edwards, A. R., & Beattie, R. L. (2016). Promoting student learning and productive persistence in developmental mathematics: Research frameworks informing the Carnegie Pathways. NADE Digest, 9(1), 30–39.