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Systematically Thinking about Scale

  • Posted by Angel Bohannon
  • On August 24, 2016

The Carnegie Math Pathways programs (Statway, Quantway, and the Bridge Courseware) have dramatically increased developmental math success rates by engaging students in relevant mathematics that they can use in their daily lives. Despite this progress, the 13,821 students that the Pathways has served pales in comparison to the half of million students across the nation that fail to achieve college math credit (Huang et. al, 2016; Bailey, Jeong & Cho, 2010;

NIC colleges have significantly varied in how successfully they have scaled student enrollment in Quantway or Statway. Scaling up Pathways student enrollment requires ‘adaptive integration,’ where faculty, advisers, and administrators adapt the Pathways program to local institutional structures (Bryk et al., 2015). Our field research of successful scaling institutions from across the NIC indicates that Pathways leadership teams engage in a number of essential activities to support scale, such as actively navigating program acceptance, transfer, and articulation, training faculty to teach, and marketing Pathways courses to students. We as a NIC believe that a ‘systems approach’ is particularly helpful in navigating complex institutional systems with multiple interconnected components in regards to scale.

During the Innovation Sessions at the 2016 Carnegie Math Pathways Forum, several NIC institutions, including Rockland Community College, Chippewa Valley Technical College, and Laramie County Community College, described their experiences using a systems approach to scale Pathway student enrollment. Taking a systems approach entails ‘seeing the system’ or the interdependencies between people, processes, structures, and outcomes within an organization (Bryk et al., 2015). Instead of solely examining individual components of a system, a systems approach examines the dynamic interactions between components within a system and across different levels of a system to understand organizational performance. In regards to the Pathways, this means understanding how implementing Pathways courses will impact these interdependencies at each institution.

Central to a systems approach is building strong, trusting relationships between stakeholders across different parts of the system to combine previously isolated efforts into a united attempt. In practical terms, the Pathways leadership team must address how Pathways courses will meet the needs and fit into the standard work-streams of stakeholders across traditionally siloed groups (e.g. advising office, curriculum committee, articulation team, student success group, math department, etc). In addition, the Pathways leadership team must generate political will by articulating how Pathways courses advance larger institutional priorities, such as promoting equity or increasing student success.

The Innovation Sessions and our field research suggest a series of specific strategies for building and sustaining strong social ties between stakeholders and engaging in a systems approach. When describing their scaling work at the Forum, Pathways leadership teams encouraged collaborative and distributed decision-making by including key representatives from across different disciplines on the team. Additionally, these teams set up multiple communication channels, such as emails and in person meetings, to generate support and develop strong relationships with affected stakeholders. In these meetings, the team would walk through sample Pathways lessons, communicate local and NIC-level Pathways’ impact on student success, articulate how course implementation would impact different stakeholder groups, and address any concerns. Throughout the year, organizational structures, such as regular meetings and check-ins, encouraged consistent collaboration between leadership and faculty teams and provided a space to troubleshoot problems, test new ideas, and share best practices.

The Innovation Sessions demonstrated that implementing and scaling Pathways through a systems approach is often a messy, challenging process. Systems thinkers must embrace iterative testing, where they learn from mistakes and make necessary adaptations. For example, a Quantway college only enrolled 22 students in its first cohort. After some investigation, their leadership team realized that Quantway could serve the needs of a much larger student population than they originally thought. They worked with the advising department to advise students with math phobia into Quantway. They also modified placement structures by accelerating some students into Quantway whose Accuplacer scores would have normally placed them into arithmetic. Over a 2 year time frame, this scaling college’s leadership team continued to iteratively test and implement a series of changes to increase Quantway student enrollment. This continuous learning around scale helped the institution expand to 12 full sections with plans to scale up to 21 full sections during the 2017-2018 year.  

As the Carnegie Math Pathways NIC matures, network institutions are increasingly taking ownership over the direction and growth of the network,  and the National Forum provides opportunities for experienced network colleges to share various innovations and lessons learned around scale, which other colleges can test and refine. As a result, the NIC can systematically learn from these various adaptations and generate a practical knowledge base about what works and what doesn’t across different contexts.