With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) is conducting a major program, Changing the Equation, to engage the nation’s community colleges in a successful redesign of their remedial/developmental math sequences (i.e., all mathematics courses offered at the institution prior to the first college-level math course.) The goal of this new redesign program is to improve student learning outcomes in remedial/developmental math while reducing costs for both students and institutions using NCAT’s proven redesign methodology. Thirty-eight institutions have been selected to participate in the program through a competitive application process. Those institutions will pilot their redesign plans in spring 2011 and fully implement their plans in fall 2011.
A major obstacle for students who are pursuing degrees or credentials in community colleges is successfully completing the college mathematics requirement. Unfortunately, that frequently means completing both remedial and/or developmental math courses as well as college-level math courses. A 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that over 60% of community-college students needed remediation. Students lacking in the competencies and skills required to enroll in college-level courses face significant challenges persisting to a degree.
Unfortunately, there has been very little change in how institutions design their academic programs and create support systems to meet the needs of their students who enter college without the necessary skills to perform college-level work. Successful completion rates in community colleges for remedial and developmental math courses rarely move beyond 50% and are often less than that. Completing a series of non-credit courses to overcome deficiencies involves significant time and money for students, slowing academic progress and sometimes derailing the momentum that comes with initial enrollment in postsecondary education.
Course redesign is a proven, data-driven innovation in institutional practice that makes it possible to get more students to and through credential-granting programs, to accelerate the rate of academic catch-up for poorly prepared students and to improve the first-year experience.
NCAT has ten years of experience in conducting large-scale course redesign programs that improve learning while reducing costs. Developmental math redesigns at NCAT partner institutions have
For example, at Cleveland State Community College the number of students passing a developmental math course increased by 29% while the cost of offering developmental math was reduced by 20%. At Jackson State Community College, the number of students passing a developmental math course increased by 44% while the cost of offering developmental math was reduced by 20%. Changing the Equation will scale such successes to additional institutions. (The NCAT web site includes Math Learning and Math Cost summary charts that provide supporting data.)
In addition to measuring course completion rates and cost reduction, all NCAT redesign projects compare student learning outcomes in the traditional format with those achieved in the redesigned format. This is done by 1) running parallel sections of the course in the two formats or 2) comparing baseline data from a traditional course to a later offering of the redesigned course, looking at differences in outcomes in the "before and after." Techniques used to assess student learning include comparing the results of common final examinations, comparing common questions or items embedded in examinations or assignments, comparing pre/post-tests and comparing final grades when the same assignments, tests and final exams are used and graded using the same criteria. Student learning gains as expressed in increased percentage points have averaged 14 points per project (ranging from 4 to 38 points.)
Increases in course completion rates in developmental math may be more indicative of success than are increases in direct measures of learning, assuming similar grading standards are used. We know that students who “do the work” in developmental math courses will succeed in the course. The problem that most institutions face is the large number of students who simply do not do the work and subsequently fail to complete the course successfully. Thus, the 51% increase in the average rate of successful course completion in NCAT course redesigns may be more significant than the average gain in learning outcomes.
Where Does Changing the Equation Fit in the Panoply of Developmental Math Reform?
In “Technology Solutions for Developmental Math: An Overview of Current and Emerging Practices,” Rhonda Epper and Elaine Baker observe the following: “In the past five years, the critical role of developmental math in the retention and success of community college students has come under additional scrutiny, partially through the attention and resources of national initiatives, such as the Lumina Foundation’s Achieving the Dream project, the Ford Foundation’s Bridges to Opportunity project, the Joyce Foundation’s Shifting Gears project, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s Breaking Through Initiative, a joint project of Jobs for the Future (JFF) and the National Council of Workforce Education (NCWE) and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning’s Strengthening Pre-Collegiate Education in California Community Colleges (SPECC) project. This attention has been accompanied by several research efforts in developmental education and a parallel policy focus on the implications of this research for higher education policy. The combination of interest from foundations, public policy groups and researchers who view math as the gatekeeper to college success have yielded a variety of new strategies and programmatic innovations, with a parallel focus on evaluating and assessing the promise of these strategies in terms of replication, scalability and sustainability.”
These reform efforts appear to be either completely open-ended, leaving the development of solutions up to individual institutions with few guiding parameters offered by the grantor, or heavily based on pre-determined solutions, with the grantor having already decided what will address the problem (e.g., open-source materials) and then looking for willing institutions to implement the solution. Few of these initiatives have produced definitive conclusions about how to increase student success in developmental math.
In contrast, NCAT’s approach has been first to establish a set of broad parameters (e.g., redesign the whole course, use instructional technology, reduce cost, modularize the curriculum) and then let experimentation bloom within those parameters. From this process, a number of solutions have emerged. In many cases, these solutions were anticipated, but in some cases they were not. NCAT has continually extracted lessons learned (models, principles, techniques) from these experiences and refined the parameters, iterating this process over the past 10 years.
From working with large numbers of students, faculty and institutions, NCAT has learned what works and what does not work in improving student achievement in developmental mathematics. The underlying principle is simple: Students learn math by doing math, not by listening to someone talk about doing math. Interactive computer software combined with personalized, on-demand assistance and mandatory student participation are the key elements of success. NCAT calls this model for success, the Emporium Model, named after what the model’s originator, Virginia Tech, called its initial course redesign.
The Emporium Model has been implemented in various ways. Some institutions have large computer labs; others have small computer labs. At some institutions, students spend a required number of hours in the lab at any time that the lab is open. At other institutions, instructors meet with students in the lab or in a classroom at scheduled hours. Each institution makes design decisions in the context of the constraints it faces. What is critical is the focus on using interactive computer software combined with personalized, on-demand assistance.
We believe that NCAT and its partner institutions are far ahead of other reform initiatives in that we have proven what works: that redesigning the developmental math sequence by modularizing the curriculum and using NCAT’s Emporium Model will result in dramatic increases in student success and reductions in instructional costs. Furthermore, we have done so with very large numbers of students. Our task is now to convince the nation’s community colleges that they can replicate that success by implementing the Emporium model and assist them in doing so.
How Does Changing the Equation Differ from Other Reform Initiatives?
The purpose of Changing the Equation is to scale a proven innovation to additional institutions. For those of you thinking about reforming your developmental math program, let’s consider more specifically the characteristics of NCAT redesigns and how they differ from other reform initiatives.
The Bottom Line
Most reform efforts currently underway in developmental mathematics are simply tinkering at the margins and have no clear vision of how to create significant and sustainable change. They are experimenting with theories of change, and the results of those experiments will not be known for years. The institutions participating in Changing the Equation are serious about increasing student success in developmental math and want to do it now. The support, structure and guidance offered by the program will short-cut the typical pace of change in higher education and let them see results in less than two years.
In a June 9, 2008 Inside Higher Education article, Vincent Tinto contends, “We must stop tinkering at the margins of institutional life, stop our tendency to take an ‘add-on’ approach to institutional innovation, and stop marginalizing our efforts and in turn our academically under-prepared students, and take seriously the task of restructuring what we do.”
In other words, it’s time to Change the Equation!