Make Math a Gateway, Not a Gatekeeper

By Anthony S. Bryk and Uri Treisman

The story is a familiar one: A high-school dropout and single mother works the supermarket late shift. Motivated to earn a four-year degree so she can have a better life for herself and her 4-year-old daughter, she enrolls in a community college after earning a GED. Three years later, she still hasn't completed the sequence of three remedial math courses required before she can take college-level math. Defeated, she says, "I just couldn't do it anymore." For this student and too many others, the dream stops here.

Remedial math has become an insurmountable barrier for many students, ending their aspirations for higher education. To earn a degree, certificate, or license, community-college students usually must complete a college-level math course. However, the relationship between this particular course requirement and the specific quantitative competencies necessary for future success at work is often unclear to students. In addition, some students must take as many as four remedial courses before they are considered "college ready." Recent studies report that between 60 and 70 percent of students placed into remedial math either do not successfully complete the sequence of required courses or avoid taking math altogether and therefore never graduate.

The relevance question—"Why do I really need this to succeed?"—is often hard to answer. It's time to ask fundamental questions about why people who care about student learning, despite Herculean efforts, are still not able to help these students realize success. It's time to decide what these students really need to know to succeed. For these reasons, we think that it's time to revisit both the structure and goals of remedial math. We want to create a challenging, alternative math pathway that emboldens students to realize their goals and prepares them well for life beyond the math classroom.

Math should be a gateway, not a gatekeeper, to a successful college education. Students must come to see math as an essential aspect of their everyday lives, no matter what their field of study. They need to think, "I can understand this, I can do this, this is important to know." The math pathway for students pursuing majors in the math-oriented disciplines is well established: Students work their way through algebra to calculus. Certainly, students entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields need to be proficient in pre-calculus and the algebra on which it depends.

However, many students in the social sciences, arts, and humanities, and those seeking careers in business, applied technologies, health sciences, and other fields, could be served just as well by another pathway. The skills in those professions can require rigorous preparation in statistics. Statistical reasoning supports decision making under conditions of uncertainty, an inescapable condition of modern life. This is math that will help these students understand the world around them, and it's the math they can use right now.

The current lengthy sequence does little to support student success. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is organizing a network of faculty members, researchers, community colleges, and professional groups to develop a statistics pathway that will provide a challenging alternative to the current developmental-mathematics sequence. This sequence will bring students to and through a course in statistics in one year that would count toward both college credit and transfer. This would replace the current sequence that takes multiple years, if—and that's a big if—students persist through the process.

We know that redesigning the mathematical content isn't enough to help these students through. With the dismal pass rates of students in math, it is clear that we must change not only the curriculum itself, but also the academic-support system that should be integrated