Community Colleges Consider Math Options

Some schools are looking at new programs to help boost success in remedial math courses.

By + More

Remedial math is a dream killer for many students, says Robyn Toman, a math professor at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. More than 70 percent of students start—and often end—in noncredit developmental classes, she says. "Remedial math has become the largest single barrier to student advancement."

Some community colleges are redesigning remedial classes, often adding math labs that let students work at their own pace with help from tutors.

[Learn how CEOs want to improve STEM education.]

Others are rethinking the traditional math sequence, designed to take students from algebra to calculus. "Do students really need as much math as we think?" asks Shanna Jaggars, a researcher at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Math-averse students have been asking that question for years: Why do I need to solve quadratic equations to get into paralegal studies or become a history major?

Virginia's community college system will match math requirements to students' academic plans by 2013. While STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors will tackle the traditional math sequence, other students will take less math.

[Learn more about STEM education.]

More than 76 percent of new community college students aren't ready for college math in most parts of Virginia. For many, math requirements are an insurmountable barrier, a study found.

Virginia has been "overmathing" students in the humanities, liberal arts, teacher education, social sciences, and non-STEM career programs, says Frank Friedman, co-chair of the math redesign team and president of Piedmont Virginia Community College.

"These students are currently required to master math skills that are more advanced than what they will ever need on their jobs and more advanced than what they will need to function successfully as an adult citizen."

Few people need to factor polynomials or solve quadratic equations, Friedman argues. "Why allow failure to master these skills to prevent a student from graduating from college?"

[See four tips for avoiding remedial math courses.]

Many students could be successful without college algebra, agrees Davis Jenkins, a CCRC researcher. "Math for nursing is not algebra. It's measurement and arithmetic. Math for psychology majors is probability and statistics. For the trades, it's measurement."

Middle-school math would be enough for many career-tech students, says Jaggars. "Others will need to know how to use numbers, do spreadsheets, do percentages, basic statistics—ninth-grade math."

While students should have the option to go farther in math, few developmental math students will want to pursue "math-heavy" fields, she predicts.

Remedial math is the most frequently failed class at community colleges, according to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

"The vast majority of community college students referred to developmental mathematics do not successfully complete the current sequence of required courses and many leave college for good," Carnegie concludes.

The traditional algebra-to-calculus sequence makes sense only for STEM majors, Carnegie notes. Working with the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas and with faculty at 30 community colleges, Carnegie has designed two alternative pathways—Statway and Quantway—for students who'd otherwise be placed in elementary algebra.

Statway mixes basic math concepts with statistics, enabling students to pass a college-level statistics class in the second semester. Quantway, which started its first pilot classes this month, teaches students how to "use mathematics and numerical reasoning to make sense of the world around them." After one semester, which includes algebraic skills, it's hoped that students will be able to pass a college math class.

Duane Benson, who's teaching a Quantway class at South Georgia College, has students work individually on a problem, then discuss their answers with classmates. If they need to review basic skills or learn an algebra concept, he provides "just in time instruction" on basic skills and algebraic concepts, teaching students information they can use immediately to solve problems.