A “Golden Age”: Forty Five Years of Dev Math, Part II

In my continuing account of a history of developmental mathematics, we are moving from the early 1970’s to the late 1970’s.  Although ‘dev math’ existed before the 1970s (the ‘origins’), my experience started then … and this period coincides with other shifts (such as the founding of AMATYC).  This post will look at the patterns of the late 1970s and how some of them impact us in 2017.

Faculty in mathematics, and observers, might assume that developmental mathematics has always been trying to justify its existence.  However, for the early part of this story, policy makers tended to ignore both the need for developmental mathematics and out outcomes.  Budgeting in this period would reward enrollment, and developmental math classes were both easy to populate with students and economical for the institution.

These conditions resulted in larger enrollments in our courses, which contributed to one aspect of a ‘golden age’:

Dozens of publishers actively sought authors and new textbooks.  Derivatives of these textbooks still dominate the book ‘market’ today.

One of these textbooks initially begun in this period is “Keedy/Bittinger”, and the “Lial/Miller” texts also began at this time.  Previous textbooks tended to be knock-offs of high school books, and now the focus was placed directly on the needs of our courses and students.  However, the content was still organized by typical topics in chapters like one would see in high school books, and this generally continues until quite recently.  The content was quite traditional and procedural; the innovations focused on the use in a ‘college’ course by adults.  This is when “workbooks” became popular, providing instructors with homework submission before the internet.

The current environment has focused on the price of textbooks.  I think it is interesting that in the 1970s the price of textbooks was just as high (relative to the “CPI”, for example) … and that the buyer got just the book.  Today, with prices a bit above the adjustment for CPI, the buyer often gets online access.  Clearly, perception is the most important issue in an economic decision like ‘buy a textbook’.  [Students also did not have any purchase options in the 1970s.]

As the enterprise of developmental mathematics expanded, some concerns developed around ‘proper placement’.  Since this preceded most of the technology we presume today, “checking prerequisites” was an enormous undertaking for an institution.  Many colleges  had been letting students enroll for courses based on the student’s perception about what was needed.  This period pre-dated the placement tests we are accustomed to, which led to another aspect of a golden age:

Many institutions invested resources in developing their own placement instruments.

In many institutions, this meant that math departments did some analysis of what students needed to know before a given class.  Likely, a majority of these efforts produced assessments very similar to the items on Accuplacer and Compass, with a focus on one type of error … not letting a student register for a class when the test indicated a high chance of not passing.  Some of these institutions were in New Jersey, where (a few years later) the items from these original institutional placement tests were incorporated into the New Jersey Basic Skills tests, which is where many of the Accuplacer original items came from.

The emphasis on avoiding a single type of error has been at the center of mathematics placement until the present, though forces are pushing us to move beyond this concern.  We have been so focused on avoiding “over placement” that we have a strong tendency to under place students — putting them in courses for which there is little need.  That pattern has left us open to external criticism, and lies at the core of the “Complete College America” attack on remedial mathematics.

Placing students has been more about “avoiding failure” in a higher course than with the question of the “best placement” for students.

The current efforts in true ‘multiple measures’ placement are aimed at answering the better question.

I think it is important to recognize that some of the institutional efforts at placement in this era were more sophisticated in their goals and more creative in the resulting assessments.  Many of this novel approaches were shared at the first few AMATYC conferences I attended a decade later.  However, almost all of these indications of diversity were overwhelmed later during the ‘systemic years’ (another period in our history, in the 1990s).  We have generally lost the institutional placement instruments, with a few surviving as supplemental devices used by individual faculty or specific courses

Obviously, this period I am calling “a golden age” was not such a good thing.  The trends begun here caused us to under-place millions of students, and also to use textbooks which presented high-school mathematics at a low level of learning.  However, this period saw growth and large investments by both institutions and publishers.

As we move from a 1970s ‘golden age’ into the 1980s, we will be describing the impact of “back to basics” in an era prior to any content standards in the profession.

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