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Texas colleges adopting new approach to teaching math

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​Students work on a problem in a New Mathways Project class at Temple College in Texas.

Photo: Temple College​​​

​“I was out of school for almost a year and a half after failing math three times. I couldn’t get through it. It was very frustrating, so I just took time off and told myself I wasn’t going to be able to get my social work degree because I can’t get through the math.”

That statement from a Texas student shows why traditional, algebra-based mathematics can be a huge obstacle to community college completion. And why does a social worker need algebra anyway?

The New Mathways Project (NMP), developed by the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin in collaboration with the Texas Association of Community Colleges (TACC), offers an alternative approach.

NMP consists of three separate math pathways: statistics, quantitative reasoning and a STEM-prep pathway for students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering or math.

Instead of focusing on pre-college courses or gateway courses as separate entities, NMP “provides students with a coherent and meaningful learning experience in mathematics regardless of whether that experience is completed in one term or in multiple terms,” said Amy Getz, manager of community college services at the Dana Center.

A promising start

The goal is to get all community colleges in Texas to adopt the New Mathways Project and then to open it up to colleges nationwide.

Visit the session "The New Mathways Project: The Challenge and Promise of Works at Scale" on April 6 at the Annual AACC Convention in Washington, D.C.

All 50 community college districts in Texas have endorsed the Mathways concept, and 10 of them began implementing basic NMP courses last fall, Getz said.

Among those colleges, 241 students took the Mathways basic course, "Foundations of Mathematical Reasoning," an accelerated credit-bearing course for students who need developmental math. That course covers numeracy, proportional reasoning, algebraic reasoning, descriptive statistics and basic probability and modeling.

Another 657 students were concurrently enrolled in the NMP course "Foundations for Mathematics and Collegiate Learning," covering study skills, academic goal-setting and career planning.

Preliminary data show that 55 percent of those students persisted to college-level courses, a huge improvement over the 10 percent rate with traditional developmental math, Getz said. She expects another 10 to 15 Texas colleges will start implementing Mathways next fall.

A customized approach 

Participating colleges develop their own NMP curricula based on four principles, and the Dana Center provides tools to support that work.

The four principles are:

  • Multiple mathematics pathways with relevant and challenging math content aligned to specific fields of study.
  • Acceleration through the pre-college math sequence allowing students to complete a college-level math course more quickly.
  • International use of strategies to help students develop skills as learners.
  • The use of curriculum design and pedagogy based on proven practice.

Lone Star College (LSC)-Kingwood began offering the NMP Foundation course last fall. Seventy-seven percent of the students who passed that course with a "C" or better are currently taking a college-credit NMP course in statistics.

Students currently enrolled in the Foundation course are also taking the NMP Frameworks course, which LSC-Kingwood President Katherine Persson said “forces them to really look at their own study habits and become more disciplined and learn the consequences of not doing that.”

The student response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” she said.

What they need

College algebra is not the best course for equipping students for today’s careers, Persson said. As a result, algebra becomes an “unnecessary gatekeeper that prevents many students from earning a degree or certificate,” she said.

“When students aren’t successful in developmental sequences, they keep taking those classes again and again. There is something wrong with that model,” Persson said. “Our advisors feel they don’t want to harm a student by telling them to take a lesser course that won’t transfer. By default, the standard is to recommend the harder course, which is algebra.”

Mathways offers students a math curriculum more in keeping with what they need for their career pathway, Perrson said.

“For a criminal justice or nursing major, statistics will serve you better than college algebra,” she said.

LSC-Kingwood has also offered accelerated developmental math courses, tutoring labs and module-based instruction.

“Those approaches have helped. I think Mathways will help much more,” Persson said.

Systemic reform

The Dana Center is helping community colleges adopt Mathways by providing curricular materials, faculty training and institutional-level planning tools.

The idea behind NMP is to define principles for reform, while giving colleges the flexibility to develop their own implementation strategies. To support those efforts, Getz said, the Dana Center is developing an in-depth resource guide “to help colleges think through major reforms.” 

Getz wants college leaders to view Mathways as “systemic reform,” not as an initiative limited to the college’s math department, where it might not be sustainable.

“This guide helps a leadership team think about how this affects the entire college, including advising, student services and institutional research,” she said.

Facilitating transfers

Four-year institutions have to be a part of this process, too, so the Dana Center started discussions in November with 17 Texas universities about transferring NMP courses and how these courses can be applied to a major, Getz said. As part of New Mathways Transfer Champions Initiative, seven universities already have transfer agreements for all three pathways, and others have options for at least two pathways.

Each community college that has started implementing NMP courses has invited two four-year institutions to collaborate on supporting the Mathways effort and ensuring that the Mathways courses will be transferable for college credit. LSC-Kingwood, for example, is working with Sam Houston State University and the University of Houston-Downtown.

The pathway for STEM majors will be the last one to be developed, Getz said. The design work is just getting underway.

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