Envisioning Change to Better Serve Our Students

In fall 2015, I attended the AMATYC (American Mathematical Association of Two Year Colleges) Conference, focusing on a symposium on the Mathematics Pathways being developed across the country.  The problem has been identified roughly as follows:  Of all the community college students (nationwide) who place at least two levels below “college level” math, about 15% complete a college level math class within 2 years.  We can do better.  And many efforts have been explored nationwide.  The take-away from that symposium was that efforts proved successful, in those cases where the college was “mobilized to support the student.”  The challenge was for colleges to envision systemic changes that could be leveraged to better serve students.

One key feature of that support was integrating support services into the classroom.  For example, counselors would talk briefly with students during lab time or call them aside to develop or update ed plans.

Another key feature was scheduling assistance.  First year programs supported students by addressing the “paralysis” that the most vulnerable students experience when confronted with the myriad decisions needed just to register for classes.  One program director said she called up each student and asked a single question, “Do you want to come to classes in the mornings or in the afternoons.”  Based on their answer, she enrolled them.

Another key feature was some type of embedded algebra support:  either through co-requisite courses, increased classroom hours, or a lab component.

Another key feature was addressing the human side of the problem, tackling head on issues like deficit thinking and growth mindset.

This year, while on PDL, I have had two types of interactions with colleges.  I, myself, have gone through the process of applying to colleges and registering for classes.  I have a master’s degree in math and consider myself to be resourceful.  But I did not consider that process very easy and I sometimes got tangled up with things like prerequisite verification.  My other interaction was through my daughter, who went through the same processes.  My familiarity with academia allowed me to answer a lot of her questions.  Each time, I reflected on what a student might be experiencing if they had no one to help them with this navigation.

We value choice.  A lot.  But it’s possible that our own appreciation for choice leads us to put students in a position where they have more choices than they care to have…too many to even allow them to remain functional in our system.

It’s time for us to focus on the individual.  When a student enters our college, what do they have to do?  What decisions do they have to make?  To what extent do those decisions serve as a barrier?  How are we supporting students through that process?

I feel at times that our system is based on the assumption that an incoming student is a self-actualized adult who has a pretty good idea of what they want to study and how to navigate our system.  And that may be true of some our students.  But I’m sure that it’s not true for many others.  And based on that symposium of alternative math pathways across America, it seems that in order to better serve these students we need to seriously reflect upon our systemic assumptions and processes and ask ourselves how we can remove some of the barriers that are currently in place.  How can we envision systemic changes that could be leveraged to better serve our students?  What might that look like at Foothill College?

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