Earlier this year I had a wonderful conversation with three key education reform leaders on the movement to create math pathways. As I reflect on that discussion and particularly how Carnegie Math Pathways has helped shape this field, a few things stand out in terms of what has been most impactful and where there is further work to be done in reshaping mathematics to better serve our students and ensure success.

1. Data is essential to understanding the problem we are trying to solve, to motivating the will to make change, and to helping us identify potential solutions.
Thinking back to the early 2000’s, most of us understood from our own experiences on campuses that mathematics was a barrier to success. But it wasn’t until Tom Bailey’s work at the Community College Research Center (CCRC) in 2010 that the problem was put into sharp relief. CCRC’s research demonstrated that once students were placed in remedial or developmental mathematics, only 20% completed a single college level math class within three years. And this system of remediation particularly disadvantages marginalized students, including Black, Latinx, Indigenous students, and students experiencing poverty.

Developmental mathematics is a well intended solution to a very real problem; yet its design actually prevents students from learning and succeeding in college level mathematics. The system of developmental mathematics has stopped half a million students a year from graduating or transfering. Knowing this has forced all of us as educators to ask hard questions about our current approaches. It’s spurred us to examine our own institutional data to understand how these national statistics relate to what is actually happening with our own students. As we begin to understand the impact of this system within our own institutions, it becomes clear that the status quo is unacceptable, that a more just and equitable solution is needed.

By taking a more comprehensive, data-informed view of the system that generates these outcomes, we are better able to understand our students’ experiences, the factors impacting their experiences, and how best to address them.

2. Reimagining mathematics education so that it is a gateway to college success for every student requires systems change, not mere tweaks to existing structures.
Through critically examining the system, it became clear that multiple factors affect student success, namely, how students are placed into classes, the sequence of developmental courses students must pass before being allowed to enroll in college level mathematics, and what mathematics content students actually need to know to meet their college, career, and life goals.

We learned that traditional placement methods overplace students into developmental mathematics courses (often a sequence of courses) before allowing them to enter a credit-bearing college level course, financially burdening students and significantly lengthening their educational journey.

Data from the Carnegie Math Pathways showed that students performed just as well with college level mathematics content regardless of whether they were assessed as needing intermediate algebra, elementary algebra, or even pre-algebra.

In fact, Carnegie Math Pathways programs, Quantway and Statway, showed that sequences of developmental courses were not necessary. Students could succeed in college level mathematics if simultaneously given the right supports. This evidence has helped spark the movement of corequisite remediation, which is now in place in roughly half the states across the country.

At the same time, the math pathways approach has ensured that more students are learning mathematics relevant to their careers and interests such as statistics and quantitative reasoning. No longer are all students, regardless of interest or major, on a single trajectory to calculus inspired by our nation’s race to space against the Soviets in the 1950s. Instead, mathematics departments are following the advice of the mathematics and statistical professional societies in offering differentiated pathways that give students the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in their careers and lives in the 21st century.

3. Developing confident and successful learners requires transforming their learning experience inside the classroom.
The structural changes of redesigning placement, implementing corequisite remediation, and aligning math pathways with majors are essential to improving student outcomes and experiences. But they are not sufficient. Developing confident and successful learners and doers of mathematics requires changing how students engage with mathematics inside the classroom. Carnegie Math Pathways has shown that by actively engaging in contextualized mathematics in a supportive and inclusive environment, students develop deep conceptual knowledge, build confidence, and gain transferable hard and soft skills they need to be successful in mathematics and beyond. Because of Quantway and Staway, and programs like them, students are pursuing mathematics-based careers that they never before thought possible.

faculty at a carnegie math pathways event

Every student deserves the chance to succeed and advance, and nowhere can students feel an institutions’ commitment to them more than in the classroom. Creating powerful and effective learning experiences that help students build a growth mindset and foster a sense of belonging in class and in college requires investment in faculty professional development. For example, the State University of New York, through its partnership with Carnegie Math Pathways, has exemplified this commitment to professional learning by establishing a network of mathematics educators across their institutions who are focused on sharing learning and advancing instructional practice. And this investment has led to sustainable change for their students.

Our path forward
In the last 10 years, the Carnegie Math Pathways network of researchers and practitioners has played a leading role, alongside the Charles A. Dana Center and Complete College America, in launching a movement that has supported educators in transforming the educational lives of hundreds of thousands of students nationwide and abroad. While the Covid pandemic has made plain and even exacerbated the inequities in our educational system, math pathways continue to be a proven and sure step in dismantling some of these inequities.

Carnegie Math Pathways remains committed to our goals of improving math learning experiences for every student through innovative course solutions and by strengthening faculty development in equitable and inclusive instruction, and more. Progress toward this goal is possible because educators and administrators who are deeply passionate about making math teaching and learning more equitable are taking action.

So what actions can you and your institution take?

  • Begin by understanding your students’ experiences. Increasingly, many of us know the hard quantitative data about how our current systems serve our students. But knowing their personal stories makes the impact of those facts and figures all too real and impossible to ignore. Talk to them, interview them, ask them about their journey in deciding to come to your school, the process of enrolling, selecting and attending classes, and preparing for their future beyond your school. What do they hope to achieve? What are their pain points? Where could the system serve them better?
  • Then take the time to examine and understand the system that is responsible for the current outcomes so you can take steps to change it. Some key things you can ask include:
    • Are all the students who could benefit from college math able to take it based on your school’s placement method?
    • Do students have the option to engage in mathematics courses that are aligned to their majors? And how quickly is it possible to progress through their required courses?
    • Are students given the individualized support they need to be successful?
    • And are their experiences showing them the relevance of mathematics to their lives and futures and building their confidence as learners?
  • Reach out and connect with others. You don’t have to do this alone. Form a community of like-minded colleagues with whom you can share practices and ideas. Math faculty can connect with faculty in related disciplines to understand the specific mathematics skills students need to be successful in these disciplines. Faculty can connect with advisors to understand how incoming students are guided in selecting course pathways. Understanding each others’ perspectives may lead to new solutions for students. It may be that more can be done to prepare students for placement, that simple additional supports could significantly boost students’ identity and confidence as math learners, or that an alternative pathway would better meet the needs of non-STEM majors, saving them time and money and making it more likely they successfully advance academically.

We acknowledge that these tasks are complex and require time, resources, and commitment. Yet, the hard work has tremendous payoff. All of us need to understand our students’ goals and their experiences within the systems we create. It is incumbent upon all of us to create institutions and systems worthy of the students we serve. Together, the Carnegie Math Pathways network of educators has made tremendous progress over the last 10 years in transforming student’s learning experience and increasing success in gateway college mathematics. In the next 10 years I am confident we can do even more.