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2011 October 31 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: By The Numbers

Photo courtesy Roxbury Community College

Working with peers is considered one way to boost student success
in developmental math courses.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y
By the Numbers
ATD Colleges Finding Solutions to Remedial Math Barrier

By Paul Bradley

For community colleges and students alike, math courses — in particular developmental math — present a persistent and frustrating barrier. Across the county, developmental (or remedial) math has an unwanted distinction: it’s the course offered most frequently on community college campuses, and it’s also the course with the lowest rate of student success.

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Through the work of “Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count,” however, some colleges are moving the needle and boosting success rates in remedial math. Slowly but steadily, a growing list of ATD colleges is helping students get through developmental math, potentially removing a critical barrier to earning a degree or other credential.

ATD, conceived in 2004 as a national initiative by the Lumina Foundation for Education and eight partner organizations, recently named 23 new “Leader Colleges,” bringing to 52 the number of schools which have achieved Leader College status by raising persistence and graduation rates and closing achievement gaps.

ATD and its member colleges focus on creating a “culture of evidence” in which data collection and analysis drive efforts to identify problems preventing students from succeeding and developing programs to help students stay in school. The “Leader Colleges” are singled out to serve as examples for the rest of the community college community. Each college takes a different, individualized approach based on their particular needs and attributes.

The show of progress comes at a critical time. A recent report by Complete College America, a nonprofit founded two years ago with funding from Lumina and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said that college graduation rates remain stagnant even as overall enrollment has climbed. A separate report said federal state and local governments spent nearly $4 billion between 2004-05 and 2008-09 on students who didn’t return for a second year.

Among the 23 new Leader Colleges, several have focused their efforts on developmental math, recognizing that it’s a chief barrier to student success on their campuses.

For example:

  • The College of the Mainland, in Texas City, Texas increased the percentage of students successfully completing developmental mathematics courses within the first year from a 46 percent in years 2003-06 to 54.8 percent in 2009. Several interventions, including a student success course and professional development focused on student learning and success, are credited for the improvement.

  • Galveston College, in Galveston, Texas, increased developmental math success rates from 21 percent in fall 2006 to 58.6 percent in fall 2010. This improvement is due to changes to the developmental math curriculum including increased contact hours and use of MyMathLab software, ATD said.

  • Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa., increased success rates in developmental math from 49 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2010. This improvement is due to changes to developmental math curriculum, including replacing the lowest level of developmental math (arithmetic) with a new course called Concepts of Numbers and accelerating students through developmental math where appropriate.

Montgomery County Community College, located in suburban Philadelphia, draws from a population of more than 800,000 residents. Its home county has pockets of both affluence and poverty.

The college serves close to 17,000 credit and 22,000 non-credit students annually. Students are as diverse as the communities served: Nearly 20 percent of the student body is composed of ethnic and racial minorities, nearly 60 percent is female, and the average age of credit students is 27. More than 50 percent of new students require at least one developmental course, with 25 percent requiring remediation in two or more areas, according to ATD.


“I could never go back to teaching (arithmetic) in the traditional method. This is more than the flavor of the month.”


Barbara Lontz,
Assistant Professor of Math,
Montgomery County Community College


When ATD started on the college’s campus, co-chair Barbara Lontz, an assistant professor of math and campus ATD co-chair, quickly recognized a troubling reality: arithmetic, the college’s introductory math course, had the lowest success rate of any class at the college. Her charge: find out why.

After poring through 75 textbooks used at colleges around the country, Lontz found a common thread: the approach to teaching math was nearly the same everywhere. Some colleges had learning communities or supplemental instructions or other add-ons, but the curriculum was essentially the same.

Digging deeper, Lontz concluded that students were consistently struggling with specific math topics. So she took a bold step, redesigning the intro course. “Concepts of Numbers” focuses on math concepts rather than topics. The payoff was immediate. In 2008-09, the success rate in her class was 70 percent, compared to 43 percent for the traditional topic-based approach.

The new Concepts of Numbers curriculum is aimed squarely at students who struggle with math. Mindful that students who are in developmental math had fallen short on a placement exam and are afflicted with math anxiety, the course starts with a “history of math” section to provide a solid, familiar grounding for the rest of the course.

“The students in developmental math feel really stupid,” Lontz said. “Their self-esteem is very low. When I went in and talked about the history of math, it was amazing to me how they perked up. They came in skeptical that this was going to be different. I got an enthusiasm I never expected.”

The new curriculum discards the traditional approach to teaching math, which focuses on topics such as whole numbers, fractions, decimals and percentages. Instead, the course stresses concepts such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Students are not asked to memorize arcane rules and then complete exercises based on them; instead, students start with a problem and solve it as a group, learning the applicable algorithms that apply in the process.

“It’s a simple idea, but it is really different from the way we have taught math forever,” Lontz said.

After her initial success, Lontz compiled her own arithmetic textbook, Concepts of Numbers. In the spring of 2010, seven faculty members were teaching the new course, and the sections had a success rate of 60 percent, compared to 40 percent in the traditional classes. This year, all introductory arithmetic courses were being taught using the new approach. Significantly, the course outcomes are the same as with the old approach, and the final exam was identical.

The college is pleased with the numbers, but some significant challenges remain, Lontz said. Most of the colleges’ math instructors are adjuncts, and some have resisted the new approach amid their heavy workload. Lontz remains concerned that subsequent math courses, taught in the traditional manner, are poorly aligned. She wants to test the approach at colleges with populations more diverse than that of Montgomery.

Still, “I could never go back to teaching it in the traditional method,” she said. “This is more than the flavor of the month.”

At Roxbury Community College, in Boston, the challenge is different. Located in a historic African-American section of Boston, the small college enrolls about 2,800 students. About 70 percent of students require one or more developmental course.

Through its work with ATD, the college increased the rate at which students starting in developmental math advance to college-level math by their third semester from 11 percent in 2006 to 25 percent in 2009. The college changed developmental math coursework, instituted new placement procedures, added a lab component and collapsed the developmental math sequence for most students.

At the front end, RCC tries to do a better job placing students in appropriate developmental courses, said Sterling Giles, the college’s ATD coordinator. Students can attend workshops prior to taking placement tests, especially important for adult students who have been away from the classroom and test-taking for years.

“It’s essential,” he said. “If the placement is too low, the student won’t be engaged. We know that the longer a student is in developmental education, the more likely they are to give up and go away. If the placement is too high, the student will fail. One size doesn’t fit all.”

The college now has three levels of developmental math. The most demanding is aimed at those students intent on pursuing careers in the sciences. The other two, into which the vast majority of students are placed, are basic math and introductory algebra.

“We separated the majority of students from the science track,” Giles said. “We stopped making students take those courses. We want to give the students facility at math, but we also want to be intelligent with the appropriate placement.”

The college also strives to assure that students don’t languish in math courses they can easily master. By taking a modular approach to math instruction, students can test out of one module and quickly progress to the next, focusing on the skills they need

Periodic math clinics and workshops — including one focusing on math anxiety — are designed to help students through their coursework. A computer-equipped math lab provides a place where students in need of help can go to work with peers and instructors.

“Some of the instructors use the lab as their office hours,” Giles said.

In addition to revamping its math offerings, the college has also launched some campus-wide initiatives, including a mandatory one-credit college survival seminar. This course is intended to make students aware of academic and student support services and promote awareness of issues critical to student success.

“This is the place to troubleshoot and for students to get the interventions when they need it,” Giles said.

At RCC, the ATD five-year grant is nearing an end, but Giles is confident that the initiative will result in lasting change. In fact, the college rewrote its strategic plan to embrace ATD principles.

“We said in the old plan what we would do,” Giles said. “It was all about task completion. The current plan is based on whether we are moving the needle. We have to look at the metrics, and that’s what we’re doing.”

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