Currently, and for the past few years, “pathways” has been a big thing in community college mathematics education. For students not needing calculus or similar courses, alternate paths have been established — with a focus on courses such as Statway™, Mathematical Literacy, and Foundations of Mathematical Reasoning. The fact that all three of those courses are very similar in content is not an accident, and the fact that the three organizations involved collaborated is a key reason for their success.

The reasoning behind the creation of pathways is essentially “give them what they need, not what they don’t need”. Students with a pre-calculus target are still placed into the old-fashioned developmental math courses, and students with other targets are placed into a ‘pathway’. All students are generally required to meet some arithmetic criteria before starting at the Math Literacy level or beginning algebra.

My own work has certainly played a role in this creation of pathways. However, that was not the intent of the efforts beginning this work. Neither do pathways have a good prognosis for long-term survival.

Let’s go through some of the reasons why “pathways” are not a long-term strategy.

**Reason 1: Pathways are a dis-service to “STEM” (calculus-bound) students!**

The original design of the major pathways courses (Quantway™, Math Literacy and Foundations of Mathematical Reasoning) was based on identifying what all students needed in college-level mathematics — statistics, quantitative reasoning, AND pre-calculus. These outcomes were then categorized in two clusters … those needed by ALL students became the core of the Math Literacy course, and those primarily needed by pre-calculus students became the core of Algebraic Literacy. [Algebraic Literacy also includes some outcomes needed for technical programs.]

In effect, “pathways” is preventing STEM (calculus-bound) students from getting the learning they need for success. We have accumulated data showing the the traditional developmental algebra courses do not add significant vale for these students when they take pre-calculus. In addition, we also know that the traditional courses were not designed for this purpose — they were designed to replicate the 9th to 11th grade content of a 1970’s high school.

Pathways create a better experience for non-STEM students, at the price of harming (relatively) those bound for pre-calculus.

**Reason 2: Curricular complexity costs too much**

One of the extreme cases I have seen is a college with SIX different courses at the Math Literacy level. Clearly, half of these are quite specialized for students in particular occupational programs. However, half were general in nature — a Math Literacy course, and two basic algebra courses.

Curricular complexity raises the cost of support functions at an institution, advising in particular. Few colleges can support this extra work in the long-term, even when the initial launch of those efforts is strongly supported by the then-current administration & governing board. As time goes on, the focus on advising slips … mistakes are made … and a later administration will question why things are so complicated.

This curricular complexity also raises costs within the mathematics department. More courses at the same level means more difficult scheduling, less predictable enrollments in each course, and a host of faculty coordination issues. Unless an institution has excess resources not needed for other situations, the mathematics department will realize in a few years that they can not support the complex curriculum.

**Reason 3: Pathways allow the continuation of arithmetic courses at colleges**

The presence of arithmetic courses at a college involves several problems and costs; the fact that our profession has not accepted these are overwhelming rationales for discontinuing arithmetic courses is a failure with moral and economic dimensions.

First of all, these extra courses at the developmental level are primarily taken by students of poverty and minorities. This is the moral dimension for us: these are the students coming to college to get out of poverty, who are then required to take one or more courses prior to the course that is a prerequisite to their required course. No possible benefit from learning arithmetic can justify this process; in fact, there is no evidence of any significant benefit for taking such arithmetic courses in college.

Secondly, arithmetic courses in a college create costs for the mathematics department. We often have a fairly discreet set of faculty (heavily adjunct), and these faculty are seldom qualified to teach a college mathematics course. In many colleges, the arithmetic courses are administered in a separate department. As faculty, we should want to design a curriculum that does not depend on a course at the arithmetic level.

Thirdly, the presence of arithmetic courses at a college will tend to perpetuate the outdated focus on procedures and answers. This conflicts with the design of Math Literacy, and impedes development of basic reasoning needed even in a traditional basic algebra course.

**Reason 4: External Forces Will Continue to Push Us To Change**

So far, the evaluation of ‘pathways’ has focused exclusively on the impact for students taking Math Literacy (or companion course) as preparation for statistics or quantitative reasoning courses — specifically, students who enroll in stat or QR after passing Math Literacy.

Curricular complexity means that there will be a less successful experience for students needing pre-calculus … by definition, because those students need two courses (beginning algebra, intermediate algebra) compared to the one & done of Math Lit. There are also operational causes for other ‘bad’ data to show up — students taking Math Literacy instead of the course they were supposed to take, for example.

In addition, we can predict that these change agents will critique our developmental math courses compared to modern standards (whether Common Core, or NCTM standards). We are not ready for this critique, and have no response for the results that are bound to come from such a critique — that developmental mathematics operates as if the year is still 1975, ignorant of the fundamental changes in our students’ experiences in K-12 mathematics.

In a way, I am reminded of something I learned at a conference session on graph theory and traffic design. Our intuition might say that it is better to have more options in street designs, where there are several north-south options and several east-west options. The traffic design results were the opposite … that the best throughput for a traffic system is the fewest possible streets.

A pathways curricular design presumes the presence of at least two courses at the same level in a sequence. This design is not particularly stable, as a system. In the long term, I think the system will collapse down to one of the options.

We need to be prepared for the demise of pathways so that we can maintain the improvements from those efforts. The danger is in assuming that both Math Literacy AND the old courses will ‘always’ be there. Within a few years, one of them will be gone. Which type of course do YOU want to survive?

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