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2014 January 20 - 12:00 am

POV: A Systemic Approach to Reform

Amy Getz
Charles A. Dana Center,
The University of Texas
at Austin

The education world abounds with small, innovative reform efforts but few initiatives are designed to implement effective change systemically and at scale. The Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin is collaborating with Texas community colleges to tackle this challenge by implementing a statewide model to reform pre-college and gateway mathematics programs: The New Mathways Project (NMP).

The Dana Center, working with the Texas Association of Community Colleges, received the unanimous support of all 50 community college districts in Texas to develop and implement the NMP. Through this project, we seek to improve student success and completion through the implementation of four fundamental principles:

Offering multiple mathematics pathways with relevant and challenging math content aligned to specific fields of study;

Acceleration through the pre-college math sequence allowing students to complete a college-level math course more quickly;

Intentional use of strategies to help students develop skills as learners; and

Utilizing curriculum design and pedagogy based on proven practice.

The Dana Center works alongside the NMP colleges in an iterative process to build prototype tools, implement, receive feedback, revise and improve. As a result, we are refining our understanding of the essential elements necessary to enact reform that is meaningful, scalable and sustainable. One of our goals is to use this learning to build an explicit model for replication by others.

The NMP works to eliminate a core barrier to graduation experienced by one in two community college students across the nation: the tragic reality that most students who are placed into developmental or pre-college mathematics do not complete a certificate or degree. We have concluded that it is not possible to have a significant impact on a problem as deeply-entrenched and intractable as this by tinkering around the edges. We strongly advocate for colleges to take a systemic approach to reform starting with how the problem is defined.

Too many reform efforts address this issue by focusing solely on changing pre-college mathematics. But pre-college mathematics is not the problem in itself. It is one factor in the larger issue of completion of a certificate or degree. As Uri Treisman, the director of the Dana Center, often says, “We need to be careful that we don’t build a six-lane highway into a swamp.”

We prefer to move away from discussions of “pre-college courses” and “gateway courses” as separate entities and instead talk in terms of mathematics pathways. This puts the emphasis on providing students with a coherent and meaningful learning experience in mathematics regardless of whether that experience is completed in one term or in multiple terms. This is a radical change in perspective for many college mathematics departments.

This re-envisioning of the mathematics course sequence as a pathway allows for modernization of the mathematics content to be more applicable to the skills and knowledge needed for the workplace and to be an informed citizen and consumer. This creates another systemic challenge — connecting mathematics pathways to programs of study. This calls for faculty to work across disciplines to define content and to create ways to make the connections explicit to students.

Another way that the NMP principles challenge and expand our traditional view of serving students is the integration of student supports. We call for colleges to align what are often a fractured set of student support programs and integrate high-impact strategies into content-based courses. For too long, the separation of “learning supports” from academic courses has led to lost opportunities to reinforce students’ growth as intentional learners and to share valuable knowledge and expertise between faculty and staff.

All of these activities require communication and collaboration across departments and disciplines. They also require support for faculty and staff as they learn new ways of working together and working with students. A systemic approach creates opportunities to leverage internal expertise and knowledge and to make better use of resources when external support is needed.

Working across a system is challenging and often antithetical to the way that colleges are structured. As we have worked with our colleagues in Texas, we have identified several effective strategies that foster connections across departments and stakeholder groups and build momentum for the work:

Leadership sets the charge. The most effective implementations begin with college leaders defining the role of the NMP in the institutional mission and strategic plan. The NMP is framed within the college culture to build ownership and support. Leaders connect it to previous work of the faculty and staff and to the interests that motivate them to continue to improve. The college leadership carries this forward through the planning and implementation process by making the project highly visible and keeping the college community informed of progress.

Actively include all stakeholders throughout the process. The NMP colleges that have been most successful with collaborating across the institution have emphasized active involvement of all stakeholders. This starts with inclusion in early planning and information sharing. We encourage thinking expansively in identifying stakeholder groups. We define roles for a number of groups: the board of trustees, president, administrators, math faculty, learning frameworks/student success faculty, staff from student support programs, institutional researchers, advisors, and faculty from major programs of study.

As the work progresses, colleges begin to consider how to reach greater numbers of people within the stakeholder groups. We have seen colleges implement a number of innovative ways to inform and engage an expanding circle of faculty and staff and allow people to participate at different levels.

Understand the current context before making decisions. The NMP colleges that develop a deep understanding of their students, culture, programs, and internal processes are able to use that information to develop appropriate strategies, prioritize changes, and identify opportunities and obstacles. This is another reason to include all stakeholder groups early as each can contribute important information about the current context.

Plan for scale from the beginning. We define a scaled innovation as a practice that has become the norm for a significant proportion of the target population. We encourage consideration of two important aspects of planning for scale. First, details of the implementation are planned with a pragmatic perspective of implementing with a large number of students. Care is taken so that features of the initial design do not become limiting factors in the future. Second, colleges strategically prepare for expansion early in the project with intentional plans for outreach to faculty and staff that lead to recruitment and training for future participation.

As we have worked with the Texas colleges, a roadmap has begun to emerge for the implementation of major reforms. We have documented this in a comprehensive implementation guide that provides action steps, tools and resources for colleges. It also includes more details about the successful strategies employed by the NMP colleges. This guide will be available on the Dana Center website, http://www.utdanacenter.org/, by March 1. To receive monthly updates about the Dana Center’s work in higher education and new resources, contact us at mathways@austin.utexas.edu.

Amy Getz is manager of Community College Services at the Charles A. Dana Center. Before coming to the Dana Center, she taught high school and college math for 20 years. This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.

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