Katie Beal: Community colleges often require large numbers of entering college students to take developmental, or remedial, math courses to improve their skills before they can take college-level math. These courses can take many semesters to complete, and far too few students ever successfully get through them.
To address this, the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin developed the Dana Center Math Pathways, or DCMP. It’s a comprehensive model that changes the instruction and content of math courses so that they are better aligned with students’ majors and career interests. The Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness — a partnership between MDRC and the Community College Research Center — conducted a study of DCMP at community colleges in Texas. To learn more about the study findings, I spoke with MDRC’s Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, who led the project.
Liz, developmental education reform has been an area of interest for policymakers and colleges who are trying to improve student outcomes. Can you tell me more about how the courses are a barrier to student success?
Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow: Traditionally, many colleges had a series of courses that students could take in math, reading, and writing. And in some cases, up to five or even six courses particularly in math. What this means for students is that each course was a semester long. And students would need to potentially take up to five semesters to complete a course series, depending on where their skills were at the start, before they could even go into a college-level course.
As we’ve discovered over the last decade or so, that has created some real challenges to students’ success, and their ability to actually stay in college and progress towards a college degree. With very few, let’s say less than 10 percent or so, of those students who have to take multiple semesters of a course series ever making it successfully through a college-level course.
So this knowledge has shifted the research environment to think about ways to help improve these students’ success in these courses.
Katie: Great. Talk a little bit about math in particular and what some of the barriers are there.
Liz: Okay. Math has been an area of particular concern for colleges because there are many, many students that are tested as meeting developmental math courses. And traditionally, there have been many more classes of developmental math, or in a series, than there is in developmental reading or in developmental writing.
So, it’s possible that it would take a student much longer to complete their math classes than it would in a developmental reading or developmental writing class.
Traditionally, in colleges, these were algebra classes. And the assumption has been that individuals should be on this kind of algebra track that would lead towards calculus courses.
Katie: The Dana Center Mathematics Pathways, or DCMP, aims to address the challenges students face when it comes to developmental math. Can you tell me more about the model?
Liz: The Dana Center Mathematics Pathways is a model similar to a couple of other national models in the country, where colleges are encouraged to diversify their math courses beyond just a single algebra track, to align with students’ majors, in areas of interest for their careers.
For instance, a student that might be going into journalism or going into a humanities class might be more well-served by taking a quantitative literacy class, and could actually use that in a way that would help them in their careers — better than a more intensive algebra course.
Additionally, individuals who might be into social sciences, like sociology or psychology, might be well-served by a class in statistics, because much of the content in those courses is based around statistical methods and knowing how to interpret the findings. What the Dana Center Mathematics Pathways encourages colleges to do is to consider alternative math courses that students might be able to take. Even starting at a pre-collegiate level, that would allow them to learn different types of math that align with their careers.
Katie: And I know that one part of the model is a different approach to math instruction. How is the classroom experience different for students?
Liz: The Dana Center Math Pathways has focused on some aspects of how to change the pedagogy and curriculum in courses and to try to make the learning within classes more student-centered, active learning, and small-group-based. What this looks like in comparison to what you might see as a traditional kind of lecture course, is you would see students going into small groups, working together on a particular problem. They would be sharing answers with one another, they would be presenting different solution methods up on the board to others in the class, and then they would be discussing, with the instructor and with other students, how they came to their method for solving a problem. That is a different look than what many traditional math classrooms have, where there is a teacher up front kind of lecturing, maybe some individual problem-solving by students at their desks, but very little group interaction.
In the particular model that we studied, there was also a component of accelerating the developmental education course. The Dana Center had created a course that would allow students that would traditionally need two semesters of developmental math to be able to complete that math in one semester.
As developmental reform has shifted even more, those courses now in the state of Texas are actually being offered as corequisite courses, meaning that students are directly enrolled in a college-level course that is paired with a support course that helps students who may have tested at the developmental level get extra support while they’re taking a college-level class.
Katie: MDRC and the Community College Research Center conducted a study of the DCMP model at a handful of community colleges in Texas. Tell me what the study found.
Liz: In terms of academic impacts, [we found] that students were passing their developmental courses at much higher rates than students that were in traditional courses, and about a 10 percentage point difference in the number of students who were able to complete their developmental courses in the DCMP group, in comparison to the students that were taking the regular classes that the college offered.
In additional, we found increases in college-level math course completion, which are very promising and suggest that the DCMP is successful at helping more students who are identified as having skills needs in math be able to successfully pass college-level math courses.
Katie: I know that you also conducted an implementation study to understand how DCMP was being implemented on the ground and what the experiences of students and faculty were. What did you learn from the classroom observations, interviews, and surveys you conducted?
Liz: Overall, we found really strong differences between the DCMP classes that we observed and the regular math classes. In particular, we saw a lot of active small group work — interactive learning — happening in the DCMP classes. Whereas almost all of the standard math classes that we visited continued to be led in a lecture model, with the instructor at the front of the room and students interacting every once in a while with the instructor, but not as much with each other.
We found was that there were really big differences in the types of instruction that students were receiving in their math classes — and even in their attitudes towards math and their confidence in their math [skills]. I think this was a really interesting finding because other studies where we have tried to look at a change in instruction have not always produced those kinds of results when you have this large-scale survey.
Katie: You mentioned that it’s often a challenge to change classroom instruction. Do you have a sense of what was different about the DCMP and what led to these changes in instructional practices?
Liz: We actually studied DCMP classes that were using a curriculum that the Dana Center had developed that helped support teachers to change their instructional practice. There is a series of lesson plans and preparatory activities that are built into this curriculum, which really helped teachers to implement this new kind of teaching style. I think that was part of what really helped influence the differences that we saw in particular in the DCMP classes.
Katie: Great. These results sound very promising. Why are they important for students and for the field?
Liz: Right. I think the jury’s still out about long-term outcomes. We’re hoping we can continue to study to see really whether or not this is helping students in the longer term, helping them continue to accumulate credits and then graduate with a certificate or degree. I think in the short term it’s showing that more students can pass a college-level math class, which has traditionally been thought of as one of the biggest barriers to completing a college degree.
On the instructional front, I think what this study shows is that instructional practice really can be changed. I think that’s a very difficult thing to do. I think that’s pretty encouraging for thinking about changes that can happen from one class that students have — and really might help the field to think about ways that other math classes might be able to continue those kinds of results.
Katie: That’s great. And can you talk a little bit about how DCMP fits into the broader landscape of developmental education reform?
Liz: Right, this is just one reform. It’s a fairly popular one. We conducted a national survey of colleges as part of this work that we’ve been doing in the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness. And we found that about 30 percent of colleges in 2015 when the survey was disseminated had already implemented math pathways. So it’s a very popular reform, and it’s really being scaled in many states across the country.
I think many colleges are implementing this, along with a suite of other types of reforms. For instance these corequisite reforms have become very popular. Many states are now mandating those. Another popular reform has been to look at changing the assessment and placement process to include things like students’ high school performance, rather than just relying on assessments. And we have a study on that as well as part of our center.
I think this is one of many [reforms], and we’re just beginning to lay the groundwork for some rigorous evidence around how well these reforms are going to help students in the short term and in the long term.
Katie: Thanks to Liz Zachry for joining today. To learn more, visit mdrc.org.