Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
Hello readers! As promised, here is Part Two of our conversation with Dr. Barbara Illowsky. Topics discussed include: the history and efficacy of math redesigns, the general tenor of the current conversation regarding these redesigns, and the benefits and dangers of the math pathway system.
ASP Blog: Can you start by giving us a brief overview of the state of the redesign movement in California and its chief motivations?
Illowsky: California accounts for nearly 10% of all students nationwide and currently has over 2 million community college students. We take the top 100% of everyone who applies, so long as they are 18 years old or 16 years old with a high school degree. So students can come to us at 18. They do not have to have a high school degree or GED. They do not have to have ever even been in high school. They might have been a fourth-grade dropout; they can still enter the California community college system.
California has been very involved in the math redesign movement. This stems from low success rates and the need for students to be able to complete their associate degree and to complete their mathematics course for the bachelor’s degree. Many mathematics and statistics faculty decided that there are topics in traditional elementary and intermediate algebra courses that are not necessary to make a well-rounded and educated person, nor for students to succeed in non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) transfer-level mathematics courses, such as statistics. In the past, students who did not need any mathematics except to graduate typically had to take college algebra or pre-calculus. Much to my delight, because I’m a statistician, California has been one of the leaders in recognizing that ending [math curriculum] on pre-calculus or college algebra is not necessarily valuable. Ending it with statistics or a practical and useful mathematics course is much more helpful.
In addition, many majors require statistics. For example, at my college, we offer about 100 to 110 sections a year of elementary statistics. That and intermediate algebra are our highest offered mathematics courses. Students need statistics [in their fields]—social science majors, pre-med students, business majors, education majors. All these students need statistics but don’t necessarily need college algebra or pre-calculus unless they are moving on to calculus.
So that’s where the movement started. What put me personally in the hot seat, is that around 1999 I initiated a movement about changing Title 5 of the California Education Code. In the past, the minimum statewide graduation requirements to get an associate degree were elementary algebra competency and English at one-below transfer level. This meant that we had mathematics graduation requirements that were lower than most high school requirements. We were almost saying to students, “Can’t pass high school? Don’t worry, come to college and you can get your associate degree.” That did not seem right. So I initiated and eventually worked with many of the associations that were involved in changing Title 5 so that the graduation requirements for an associate degree would be the first level of freshman English, or courses at the same level and rigor, which had the similar prerequisites. On the math side of it, I really felt that [graduation requirements] should go up to a college-level math, but we couldn’t go up two levels—so we went with intermediate algebra or a mathematics course at that same level of rigor and with elementary algebra as its prerequisite.
But here is the part that is really important and led to the redesign movement, and I’m happy that it did. As I said, students could also complete a course at the same level as intermediate algebra with the same level of rigor, so long as it had elementary algebra as its main prerequisite. At the time, there were no alternate pathways. The intent behind all of this was to figure out a way to increase students’ understanding of and competency at quantitative methods, not necessarily that students would all now have to take intermediate algebra. So many schools said, “We are going to have intermediate algebra as a graduation requirement and that is fine.” Other schools said, “Well we are going to have geometry because that is a useful course.” Some schools said, “We are going to give students a choice between geometry or intermediate algebra.”
Pathways weren’t even a part of this discussion because there was no way to lead these innovations while maintaining that elementary algebra had to be one of the prerequisite courses. The truth was, the math courses that were being offered by other departments were really two levels below transfer mathematics. There was concern that other departments would develop a math course and want this to be the graduation requirement, but the math courses would be at such a low mathematical level that they wouldn’t suffice.
ASP Blog: With whom were you working on this at the time?
Illowsky: It was the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges that really took the lead on this. I initiated and brought it in, but it was really the Academic Senate that ran with it and had the votes and then worked with all of the statewide organizations. I certainly don’t want to take any credit for getting this through. Really what happened was that three other people came up with the Basic Skills Initiative (BSI) —I was the first project director, but I didn’t invent the BSI. I was asked to be the project director because the Academic Senate said, “OK, Barbara, you initiated the raising of the graduation requirements, so put your money where your mouth is.” The pre-BSI work included a strong review of the literature that said for the basic skill level courses, success requires strong administrative support, strong student services support, strong organizational practices, and strong pedagogy. This was really what Dr. Paul Nolting and Dr. Hunter Boylan had been saying for years.
I think the work that Dr. Nolting does is fabulous. The same goes for the National Center for Developmental Education. There is increased focus on staff development—which is now called professional development—which doesn’t merely require staff to go to a conference once a year but to keep working to improve teaching and student learning. This also involves increasing focus on instructional practices with collaborative learning, not strictly standing and lecturing nonstop. It is so important to integrate support services into whatever course you have. No matter what program you do (such as pathways or elementary and intermediate algebra), we all need to adopt good pedagogical techniques. What are the good practices? We know what they are. Dr. Boylan and the National Center for Developmental Education have documented these practices. Dr. Nolting knows what they are. Whatever we decide to do – pathways or the algebra route – we need to adopt effective practices.
ASP Blog: How well are the redesigns working? Are we seeing marked, noticeable benefits from these redesigns? How do people feel about them right now?
Illowsky: There is major enthusiasm and major concerns. Mathematics departments, as far as I can tell, are totally split on the types of redesigns. There are several types of redesigns. Some involve embedding student support into the curriculum--not changing the curriculum. I don’t think that anybody is against this. The redesign that uses statistics to determine where you can eliminate certain topics in intermediate algebra—and this is what many of the most well-known projects are doing—is much more controversial. You have great supporters and you have mathematics faculty who feel that [redesigns] water down curriculum. You also have mathematics faculty who believe this is the way we need to go because some curriculum is outdated.
Starting with data analysis and descriptive statistics right on day one, I think is fabulous. I can remember when I first started teaching at De Anza College, and I brought in one of the first changes to intermediate algebra on topics that I believed were no longer needed because of technology. For example, we used to, but no longer, teach how to compute logarithms using logarithm tables. We don’t teach this anymore pretty much anywhere across the country because it is not really needed. Technology has made [reading logarithm tables] an unnecessary topic. There are other topics that the redesign movements are saying, “Well if students are not going to go on to STEM careers—science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or business—but are instead going into humanities, social science, or art, do they really need these particular topics?” What students actually need is to be able to analyze data—not necessarily do the actual number crunching of the data, but be able to read a newspaper and understand what surveys and charts mean, whether they are biased or unbiased.
The math community is split [on using pathways instead of the algebra sequence]. I think the redesigns are wonderful, but I think there are two big caveats with all of this. First, [redesigns] should not replace providing students with support, study skills, and counseling. These items are all necessary to math programs. For the most part, successful programs focus on these services. Second, we need to make sure that our ultimate goal is not to help students pass elementary algebra or statistics or even earn a bachelor degree. Our ultimate goal is for students to become contributing members to society and to apply mathematical concepts to their own life situations. We also need to makes sure that students are able to achieve their own goals. We need to make sure we counsel students carefully before we direct them into any program. Some students [without knowing it] are reducing the possibility that they can major in a subject matter that offers the highest wages and broadest career choices. This is very touchy because I am not putting any judgment on what it means to get a humanities degree or art degree or psychology bachelor’s, but we do know that the job market is better for some majors and that engineers are paid higher than many other professions. We do know that nurses are paid higher; we do know that bookkeepers are paid higher; we do know that even teachers are paid higher.
Many minority and nontraditional students are not majoring in these high paying disciplines. So there are many state and national programs that work to encourage students in underrepresented groups to major in these careers. At the same time, we are guiding them to an alternate pathway that eliminates being able to major in these careers. Students are often required to make this choice early because they are making it at the time when they are choosing elementary algebra or a different pathway.
ASP Blog: So you are saying that the fact that students have to make a decision so early on in their college careers as to what pathway they will take toward graduation, restricts their flexibility to make changes if they have a sudden change of heart? Students who may choose an easier math pathway before their first semester may decide later on that they want to go into a major that might lead to a more lucrative career, but will not have the knowledge or prerequisite courses to enroll in higher-level math courses?
Illowsky: Right. Some people will say, “Well students may not know what they want to major in, but they do know what they hate.” They know they hate engineering, science, etc. But maybe they don’t hate [these subjects]. Maybe they take a few courses and find out that they really like them. I’m not against pathways. I think they are fabulous. What I do suggest is that we make it really, really clear to students that pathways directly [affect what they can eventually major in]. I know that the Dana Center [at UT Austin], for instance, is working on a bridge for students who decide to change majors.
ASP Blog: Is there anything else that you would like to discuss?
Illowsky: Sure. There are a couple of things that I do want to mention.
First, the University of California now accepts STATWAY for transfer. California State University has said that they will accept statistics if it is a part of certain alternate pathways, on a case-by-case basis. In general, they are in support of the alternate pathways leading up to statistics. One thing that is common to all of these programs, but is not unique to all of these programs, is an emphasis on real-world application and collaborative learning and analyzing problems. One of the great accomplishments of these programs is that they have really brought out into the public the value of non-lecture math courses. They have highlighted the value of working together with groups, with real-world problem solving. Many of us have been doing this for years and years. But the majority [of teachers] still mostly stand and lecture, and their group work is maybe five minutes of, “Do you have any questions for me?”
I also want to talk about one more concern about redesigns—state and national. We haven’t seen the expansion far enough yet to know whether or not [redesigns] will work on a larger scale. We are taking some star faculty, who have all of the resources available to them and are statistically some of the best faculty in their departments—the ones who are innovative and are willing to try new things—and we are using them to represent instructors in general.
But the masses of developmental education courses in all disciplines—mathematics, English, reading, writing—are typically taught by adjunct faculty. Many of our adjunct faculty are our best faculty, but they often do not have access to professional development by the nature of the structure [of adjunct faculty]. This has nothing to do with their desire or abilities, but they are often going from one college to another. The redesigns at these colleges vary. This does not allow adjunct professors the opportunity for strong professional development.
So what we typically see are the great success rates from star faculty. We don’t know how this will scale out to the masses of all faculty. We don’t know if this will work, because we don’t know whether the faculty without professional development or those who don’t want to change or those who are told to teach things one way at one college and a different way at another college are going to [succeed with redesigns].
When I applied for my first teaching job at my college, I applied for a full-time position. I was called on a Friday so that I could start teaching on the next Monday. I was handed a book, I was handed a course outline, and was basically told, “OK, we are going to make this pretty easy on you. Don’t worry. Just do …” This is not that different from the way many adjunct faculty are still hired nationwide right now. So we don’t really know what is going to happen [as redesigns] are scaled out [nationwide].
All of this being said, it is still essential that we continue to offer, research, and expand many of the most successful pathways in order to educate and serve our students.
Dr. Nolting is a national expert in assessing math learning problems, developing effective student learning strategies, assessing institutional variables that affect math success and math study skills. He is also an expert in helping students with disabilities and Wounded Warriors become successful in math. He now assists colleges and universities in redesigning their math courses to meet new curriculum requirements. He is the author of two math study skills texts: Winning at Math and My Math Success Plan.
American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges presenter, Senior Lecturer-Modular