The Big Missed Opportunity: Forty Five Years of Dev Math, Part III

This is part of a series of posts reflecting on our history in developmental mathematics … especially at community colleges in the USA.  We’ve talked about the ‘origins’, about a ‘golden age’ (or not), and now we move to the first half of the 1980s.

Two major movements were active at about the same time in the early 1980s … one dealt with placement policies, and the other dealt with the content of mathematics courses at this level.  When more than one movement is impacting a profession at the same time, there is always an opportunity for fundamental change.  That is not what happened in this case, and we continue to deal with the ‘incorrect’ responses to that opportunity.

The use of standardized assessments for placement was widespread (though with varied instruments) at the start of this period, as we moved from home-grown placement measures to assessments used at a larger scale (state, region, or nation).  Those tracking data quickly noticed that these measures, often used with mandatory placement, were impacting certain groups at a disproportionate rate.  In some cases, the items on the assessments had been tested for bias; even with tests using only these tested items, the results showed an uncomfortable level of differential impact.

Clearly, “something” had to be done.  A professional response might have been to develop an effective short term intervention that would equalize the results.  Another professional response might have been to establish collaborations between community college math faculty and the local K-12 school’s math program.  In general, neither of those responses occurred.  Instead, there was a decline in the rate of mandatory placement:

Students have the right to fail.  If they disagree with the placement measures, they can take the higher course.

I still hear this “right to fail” statement, which I see as a abrogation of our responsibilities:  We let students make a decision known to put them at unnecessary risk (we knew they were likely to fail).  Most colleges did not continue this ‘worst practice’ (as opposed to best practice), with the result that the placement system continued to have a differential impact on known groups of students.  That problem continues to the present day, as a general condition.  [Some colleges, systems, and states use either placement systems that moderates the impact (true multiple measures) OR have implemented new curricula which make the results more tolerable (pathways).]

For some history of placement policies, see https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/college-placement-strategies-evolving-considerations-practices.pdf  .

The content movement impacting developmental mathematics in the early 1980s was a ‘trickle-up’ reaction to K-12 math reform in the prior decade or two.  The K-12 math reform is usually called “new math”, which failed because the curriculum was designed by university math education professors with little attention to the teachers who would try to deliver it.  Even though we can see the “DNA” from this New Math within the modern curricular standards of NCTM, AMATYC, and MAA, there was a back-lash in K-12 that drifted up to college … “BACK TO BASICS”.

There were very few college level books that implemented New Math designs; most were (and still are) very similar to the K-12 math predated New Math.  However, here was an opportunity for college math faculty to create developmental mathematics courses with balanced and effective approaches to multiple levels of learning — including reasoning and communication.  Our collective response was to regress even further on the levels we sought to deliver in our curriculum.  We reduced the amount of reading in our books, added examples, grouped the student practice by type, and generally made choices guaranteed to limit the student benefit for their efforts.

The two movements (right to fail, back to basics) involved forces that could have had that synergy necessary for significant long-term change.  We should have had one response to resolve both issues … change our curriculum in a basic way so that entering memory levels of particular skills do not determine success; rather, the entering level of understanding would determine success.

In my view,  the “New Life Project” represents this type of approach with developmental courses that are far less sensitive to remembered skills (Math Literacy, Algebraic Literacy), which means that they are far more accessible to all parts of our student population.  The fact that this solution appeared and gained support 30 years after the first opportunity indicates to me that our profession has been resistant to progress.  It’s not that dev math did not change between 1985 and 2010; it’s that all of the other changes did not address the core problems we face.  We needed other external forces acting upon our work before we were willing to try something different enough to possibly make real progress towards helping all students succeed.

We currently are in the ‘next big opportunity’ to make progress.  Let’s be sure to do things this time that will get us significantly closer to our goals.

 
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5 Comments

  • By Laura, February 25, 2017 @ 10:11 pm

    During the 1980s in my dev math classes, success meant ready to do college algebra, without technology. It was a different world. No white boards. No assessment. No peer review or mentoring. Most faculty taught as they had been taught and knew nothing about learning theory. Jumping to today, I imagine a Venn diagram with one circle being expert in teaching/learning/motivation and the other circle being expert in doing mathematics. I am hopeful that the number of faculty in the intersection is increasing.

  • By Jack Rotman, February 27, 2017 @ 7:52 am

    Good point.
    What I often find is that many faculty have some learning theory … often just enough to be dangerous. We all go through that stage, but far too many of us stay there. We learn a little theory, use a couple of tricks from that theory which seem to work, and then stop learning. A number of us live more by slogans about learning than we do by understanding how our students learn.

  • By schremmer, February 26, 2017 @ 11:45 am

    Re. “It’s not that dev math did not change between 1985 and 2010″. Of course it did:

    First it was called remedial math.
    Then it was called developmental math.
    Now it seems to trend towards foundational math.

    (Of course, same old s…tuff if ever more diluted.)

    Re. “We needed other external forces acting upon our work before we were willing to try something different enough to possibly make real progress towards helping all students succeed.”

    I sure never did. On the other hand, I still have to fight “external forces acting upon [my] work“.

    And, re. “Math Literacy, Algebraic Literacy“, did it “make real progress towards helping all students succeed.” possible?

    As I believe I already complained before, with all the talk about it, there seems no way to see a single actual text? (Whatever I could find all seemed to be proprietary which would seem significant.)

  • By Eric, March 1, 2017 @ 8:28 am

    “The K-12 math reform is usually called “new math”, which failed because the curriculum was designed by university math education professors with little attention to the teachers who would try to deliver it. Even though we can see the “DNA” from this New Math within the modern curricular standards of NCTM, AMATYC, and MAA, there was a back-lash in K-12 that drifted up to college … “BACK TO BASICS”.”

    A lot of current criticism of CommonCore seems reminiscent to me of the backlash against New Math. If Back2Basics is what drifted up to CC Dev Math programs back then, what do you see the impact of CommonCore being on CC Dev Math now? For our institution, none of our students are showing evidence that CCSS has had much effect on their understanding of or approach to math (this is due mostly to our students’ ages – it’s too soon to see the effects).

  • By Jack Rotman, March 2, 2017 @ 11:26 am

    Nice comment, and great question, Eric.
    The impact of Back2Basics on CC Dev Math was primarily a retrenchment into a skill oriented, answer driven sequence of topics (which eventually mutated in to the modular & emporium models).
    The general direction of the Common Core math is very similar to some recent shifts in CC Dev Math … dealing with reasoning, communicating, and connecting. Movements such as New Life, Carnegie Pathways, and Dana Center Mathways reflect those priorities. However, our focus tends to be on a much narrower set of content topics than is listed for grades 9-12 in the Common Core. I think we will see, within 10 years, new math courses replace the old remedial courses in community colleges — so, that ‘fits’ the Common Core at a global level of curriculum. However, I would like to think that the Common Core will encourage us to always include more mathematics than the student’s current program requires. My worry is that our developmental math courses will become proper subsets of the learning needed for a specific curriculum, resulting in very limited overall benefits to students. Math is supposed to SUPPORT students and programs … math is not supposed to be a slave to other programs.

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