What if instead of thinking about what a new student is proficient at, we think about how we can help them achieve their goals? How would this be different than what we currently do? Here’s a thought experiment:

Charles enrolls at the college. He declares a major that requires statistics. How can we decide whether he is ready for that statistics class? Traditionally, we’ve given a test or two and we’ve said, “Hey, if you remember the algebra you’ve studied, then you’re probably going to be OK in a statistics class.” And we were probably right about that. But were we right when we concluded that NOT remembering the algebra you’ve studied means you’re probably NOT going to be OK in a statistics class? And were we right when we concluded that algebra skill was a good indicator of whether a student is prepared to engage in “higher order thinking?” Were we right when we told students to take a couple algebra classes and “call us in the morning”?

Is it possible that algebra is completely uninspiring to many people? Is it possible that in the past, we were willing to say that those who were uninspired were not “college material?” Is it reasonable that for decades, completion of intermediate algebra was the very DEFINITION of college-ready, mathematically speaking? The numbers that I have heard vary, but the percentage of students who start in “basic skills” and complete a college-level math class within 3 years is VERY SMALL. So that path is proven unsuccessful at helping students achieve their goals. Some states have insisted that their community colleges not provide “developmental education.” Their premise is that if the student doesn’t know basic arithmetic, they can go to adult ed., but if they just don’t know algebra, then educators need to build and offer co-requisites to support those students in their college-level classes.

So let’s go back to Charles. If he places into beginning algebra or below, he has very little chance of completing that statistics class over the next 3 years. Can we offer him a better option? As a matter of fact, our math department has been working with the Carnegie Foundation for Learning for 6 years now…participating in a nationwide movement to develop, implement, test, and improve upon a new pathway that would allow Charles to immediately engage in college-level work, rather than going through the hazing process we call algebra. Since fall 2011, we have run this new option, called Statway, at least twice each year. And it was painful in the beginning. But from that very first cohort, the folks that taught it could see that some students who were not well-served by our traditional path could grow and develop intellectually in the new pathway.

One of the challenges of this work has been articulation. Understandably, the UC system has been reluctant to grant articulation without proof that the curriculum and pedagogy was effective. The CSU system approved it (temporarily) for articulation quite early because it saw the promise and wanted to try the curriculum and pedagogy out itself. They do research in those 4 year schools. And they have data suggesting that Statway graduates do better in the next statistics class than do graduates of a traditional intro to stats class. So now, just this year, the UC system is willing to articulate statistics classes that do not have algebra as a prerequisite. So now we have to figure out how to change the course numbering system to indicate that it’s UC transferable. And we have to nail down the details of that announcement. For example, do they mean effective immediately? Retroactively? Or at some point in the near future? And then, once we are perfectly clear on those details, we have to communicate all of that to counsellors and help them understand the options available to Charles and other students. Then, we need to provide the professional development to educate and prepare more teachers to teach this new pathway…the work goes on and on.

So back to the question, “How can we help Charles achieve his goals?” That depends on how prepared Charles is to jump into a traditional statistics class. It also depends on what we are willing to do as an institution to support him in that class. But asking the question is a good starting point. Working on improving placement is a good step in the right direction, as is asking the institution to consider new means of doing business. And why stop with Charles? What about Jenny, who needs GE transfer-level math but not necessarily statistics? What about Raul who doesn’t know what he’s going to major in but wants to get started with his education? Can we offer him a better option than we offer to Lyn, who knows that she needs to eventually study calculus? These are the questions we are working on. And they are all tied up with articulation, CID-Transfer Degrees, and development of multiple-measures. But if we have the fortitude to keep working on this, even as we teach a full class load, then in 2 – 4 years, we may find ourselves in a much better position to help our students reach their goals.