Regional Accreditation and the Problems in Developmental Mathematics

This post is directed at my colleagues in community colleges and similar institutions … and the bodies that conduct our accreditation processes.  My conjecture is that the accreditation process contributes to the problems we have in developmental mathematics, and that this situation deserves corrective action on the part of the regional accreditation bodies.

The regional accreditation bodies use criteria for faculty credentials; in the case of the HLC, the specific wording is:

Faculty teaching general education courses, or other non-occupational courses, hold a master’s degree or higher in the discipline or subfield. If a faculty member holds a master’s degree or higher in a discipline or subfield other than that in which he or she is teaching, that faculty member should have completed a minimum of 18 graduate credit hours in the discipline or subfield in which they teach.

In all cases that I am aware of, remedial courses are not included in the ‘other non-occupational courses’ category.  The result is the common practice:

Anybody holding a bachelor’s degree, in any field, is qualified to teach developmental mathematics.

Within this common practice, a significant portion of faculty teaching developmental mathematics were original credentialed for high school teaching … usually in mathematics, but not always.  Teaching high school mathematics is a worthy profession, often undertaken by dedicated individuals who are either not-appreciated or blatantly disrespected.  However, the context for teaching developmental mathematics is fundamentally different from teaching high school mathematics.

Among those fundamental differences is the fact that developmental mathematics at an institution is directly connected to college-level math courses.  The developmental algebra courses are expected to prepare students for specific college-algebra or pre-calculus courses, with an expectation of content mastery and retention … those elements have a much lower priority in the high school setting.

Another critical difference between the high school and developmental math contexts is that the developmental math faculty need to interact positively with faculty teaching the college level courses.  Since so many of the developmental mathematics faculty have less qualifications, this presents a cultural and social problem:

How can faculty of college-level mathematics have professional respect for faculty of developmental math courses with ‘lower’ qualifications?

A typical developmental math course has a focus on procedural skills and passing, while the college-level math courses tend to emphasize application and theory … sometimes with a much lower emphasis on passing.  In many colleges, this difference in emphasis leads to either a de facto or official separation of developmental math from college math.

The biggest single problem we have in developmental mathematics is the emphasis on a long sequence of courses — 3 or 4 courses below college level.  The inertia for this structure is based, in large part, on the parallel to grade levels in K-12 work … arithmetic (K-6), pre-algebra (7-8), beginning algebra (9) and intermediate algebra (10 or 11).  I have found that many faculty in developmental mathematics have a difficult time letting go of this grade-level focus (courses in K-12).

The fact that the accreditation process ‘ignores’ developmental math teaching qualifications is the problem I think needs to be addressed.  Should faculty teaching developmental mathematics have the same credential requirement as college-level math faculty?  There are strong arguments for this approach.  Should faculty teaching developmental mathematics have credential requirements beyond that of K-12 math teachers?  In my view, definitely yes.

At this point in time, it is not realistic to hold developmental math faculty to the same credential requirement as college level math — we just don’t have enough people qualified at that level.  However, I think we can develop some reasonable standard which approaches that goal.  Perhaps  ‘masters in math education, or a minimum of 9 graduate credits in mathematics’ could be used as an alternative (in addition to the ‘regular’ credential for general education).  The professional organizations, primarily AMATYC, could develop such a criteria in collaboration with the accrediting bodies.

My purpose is more about pointing out the problem and need to develop a solution, rather than advocate a particular criteria.  Achieving a solution could be measured practically:

Can all mathematics faculty in a community college, regardless of normal teaching assignments, understand and contribute to all curricular discussions involving any math course at the institution?

Until we see this result, students will continue to experience a developmental math program that tends to be too long and overly connected to the K-12 ‘grade level’ structure.


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