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The Critical Role of Math Pathways in the Student Success Agenda

Thanks. I’m so pleased to welcome all of you to Indianapolis. In my decade with Lumina Foundation I’ve grown to deeply appreciate and really love this city, and am delighted to have the chance to show it off to old friends. And I certainly see a lot of familiar faces in the room tonight—many to whom Lumina owes thanks for support, robust research and dialogue, and outstanding leadership in the student success agenda across the country.

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb (!) and say here to this friendly audience that the words “student success” and “math” don’t always get used in tandem in our national or popular dialogue. We all know the stereotypes…you often hear “math” alongside phrases like “stumbling block.” Or “math” tied to “remediation.” Or “math” linked to “my employees don’t have the fundamental skills.”

The question shouldn’t be “WHY math” but “WHICH math?”

What’s really disappointing about math getting this bad rap is that we know, in our hearts and minds, that it’s not about jumping through arcane hoops. Mastering mathematical concepts is about critical thinking, problem-solving, fundamental applied facts, and analytic processes. But when almost 60 percent of community college students and a 1/3 of developmental ed students at four-year institutions require math remediation, the question shouldn’t be “WHY math” but “WHICH math?”

So I was pleased to be invited tonight as you kick off your review of a proposed national strategy to tackle this “which math” question. As all of you know—because you’ve been hard at work on it for years—“math pathways” are not a new concept. But differentiated math pathways are a remedy that can be hard to sustain without consolidated energy and uniform understanding across institutions, state systems, policymakers and learners. This is one of the reasons I’ve been so pleased to see the work of the AMPSS partnership unfold: getting to a shared definition both of the problem and the stakes is the only way we will address the issue. Your collective leadership is sorely needed.

Now, I’m not suggesting, and I don’t think anyone here would say, that math pathways are meant to make postsecondary education “easy” for more vulnerable students. But all of you know—and I think saw earlier than most—that postsecondary education’s college algebra-to-calculus pathway has been a victim of inertia. While it has a critical role for some important careers and learner paths, the requirement is certainly not aligned with ALL careers or pathways.

So, to be clear, no one is proposing that math curriculum be “dumbed down,” as some ill-informed critics might suggest, but rather to consider this single pathway from the perspective of the student. To force a student whose future learning and work will not rely on the tenets of college algebra and calculus, but rather on statistical and quantitative reasoning, might not only delay or prohibit that student’s completion, but ultimately deny the skill development that student needs.

Consider a student who may already question his or her ability to succeed in education beyond high school because they’ve never known anyone who has actually achieved that kind of success. That student needs attention, and needs support to help them navigate the system. Pushing that student into a uniform, predetermined model would perpetuate a much deeper problem than making a single student feel uncomfortable or demotivated. It would make that student ill-prepared for future work. It would—it does—cost students and institutions more than it needs to, as 37% never make it out of the first math gateway course and have to retake or reenroll. It would further circumvent the pipeline of talent our evolving workforce requires, placing only select students on a path to success, possibly deepening racial and economic equity gaps along the way.

That’s why the work you’re doing matters so much to our learners, and to Lumina. You are focused on student success in the long-term, not in a math course. You are focused, as you say in the new strategy statement, on drawing math pathways redesign efforts into a systemic process that turns the tables on the idea of uniform academic experience and turns postsecondary education into a more student-centered enterprise.

So, why should someone like me care—you know, beyond the fact that I wish I could have dodged college algebra given that I basically have had to eat, sleep and breathe statistics for much of my career? I care…Lumina cares…because we continue to be focused on just one thing: our goal. As most of you know: we are driving towards 60% of Americans holding a high-quality degree or credential by 2025. We didn’t set that goal to be able to count heads, but to provide more Americans a path to a stable middle-class life, with options for further learning and for current careers—and the careers ten years from now.

We are committed to setting learners on a path to obtain the skills they need, mathematical skills that build a basis for their educational and professional lives. And we are committed to addressing the persistent gaps in opportunity and success for students from under-resourced and underserved backgrounds. Success for first generation, low-income and students of color has less to do with student readiness for rigor than it has to do with how our institutions and systems have been constructed. In the name of “quality,” barriers become not just stumbling blocks but walls that prohibit success. You in this room are paying attention, and breaking down those walls.

Not long ago Lumina released its latest four-year Strategic Plan for 2017-2020. In it we are both staying the course for the 60% goal and doubling down on proven practices and promising opportunities. If you visit our website and read the Plan, you will see an even more focused set of investments and change strategies and a heightened commitment to equity, opportunity, and quality for all learners—with strong focuses on African American, Hispanic and American Indian individuals, first-generation students, people from low-income families, and both returning adult learners and adults without any postsecondary education.

The plan recognizes more clearly than in the past that learning happens in multiple locations beyond just traditional institutions of higher education. Lumina is investing in efforts to document that learning and connect it to other learning opportunities that result in all types of credentials, including certifications and certificates. I’m sure you recognize in the plan the important role that innovative thinking about how to prepare and guide students along well-designed, transparent pathways plays in this plan. I’m also sure you recognize the important role that your own innovative outlook plays in getting us where we need to go.

At the broadest level, we need all of the players, all in. We are working at the state and federal policy level to ensure that our policies incentivize and promote the right stuff, and to ensure that policies that don’t do exactly that get replaced. We are working with communities and regional stakeholders to ensure that students, especially those from vulnerable backgrounds, have their basic needs met; are well-supported with programs that seamlessly connect at stop-out points; and that students can make informed decisions about which credentials are the most meaningful.

And we’re working with institutions, especially community colleges, MSIs and regional 4-year institutions, to ensure that the students we care about most have the best chance at success—not only because they are better prepared coming in the door, but because the institutional community is doing everything it can to get those students out the door, with high-quality credentials that lead to further education and employment.

So, like I said, everyone, all in—that is the only way we’re going to get to the goal.

I want to close my remarks—and hopefully move on to some questions and insights from all of you—by thanking and applauding the AMPSS partners: AASCU, APLU, Carnegie, Complete College America, the Dana Center, NASH and TPSE. Your dedication to dismantling this stumbling block for American students as a true pathway, a means to students’ success, and not some sort of easier road, is inspiring and invaluable.

Thank you.

Lucia Anderson Weathers
Stronger Nation 2017 demonstration
Stronger Nation 2017 demonstration
June 19, 2017

A Stronger Nation 2017 report uses Census data to track progress in degree attainment at several levels – nationally, in metropolitan areas, in all 50 states, and down to the county level. It also contains national data and state-specific estimates that show attainment of high-quality postsecondary certificates.