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Transforming Instruction in Math

(A. Solano)

November 30, 2021

Update: In my last update in December 2019 (scroll below), I noted that first time enrollment in transfer-level math went from 18% in Fall 2015 to 91% in Fall 2019. Despite Covid, Fall 2021 enrollment was 89%.

One-year transfer-level math completion rates:
African-American success rates:
2015-16: 10%
2018-19: 39%
2019-20: 52%
2020-21: 43% (dipped during transition to online)

Latina/o/x success rates:
2015-16: 15%
2018-19: 39%
2019-20: 55%
2020-21: 56% (Citrus is an HSI institution with 65% of students identifying as Latina/o/x)

As the quality of instruction increased, all students benefited, including White students. They went from a 21% completion rate in 2015-16 to 69% completion rate in 2020-21.

Gaps exists and through their community of practice, the math faculty work to continually improve their craft, but the evidence is clear: more students of color are completing transfer-level math than ever before. Outcomes are significantly more equitable compared with the days of antiquated placement testing and sage on the stage teaching.

December 14, 2019

UPDATE: More students are completing transfer-level math courses within the first year at Citrus College.

Last year I did a Q&A with Citrus College Dean, Michael Wangler, on the college's transformation in math (see below). With updated data now available, I'm happy to share that first time enrollment in transfer-level math went from 18% in Fall 2015 to 91% in Fall 2019!

One-year transfer-level math completion rates:
African-American success rates:
2015: 10% 
2019: 45%

Latina/o/x success rates:
2015: 15% 
2019: 49%

The 2019 equity gap between African-American students and Whites is 14%
The 2019 equity gap between Latina/o/x students and Whites is 10%

Gaps are stubborn and Citrus College math faculty continue to work hard to reduce them, but think about what's happened. More students have been placed in transfer-level math and completion rates have increased!

Social Justice & Equity Educators as Institutional Conservatives
Ironically, many of my social justice colleagues were (and are) upset with multiple measures that place students directly into transfer-level math and English courses. These people are what I call "Institutional Conservatives (ICs)." ICs care about social justice outside of the academy, but don't apply it inside the academy. More than any group, students of color were dropping like flies in the remedial wilderness. Dumping students into remediation via an inequitable high stakes test is a social justice issue, but sadly many (not all), of my colleagues who claim to be social justice & equity warriors had/have no problem maintaining the status quo at their institutions. ICs also block guided pathways efforts, which research shows helps to move the needle on student success with each campus having the autonomy on how to apply a specific equity lens to this work. 

With elevated pedagogical practices and support, more students of color than ever before have a fighting chance to complete an associates degree and/or transfer because of this change in instructional practices!

Flipping the Student Data Narrative
Unfortunately, there are math departments across the country that are ensuring students fail in transfer-level math to make a heartless point about student placement into transfer-level courses. In fact, how about we stop presenting data like this:

"80% of students failed college-level math."

To this:

"Math faculty failed 80% of students in college-level math."

Conversely, when the data is positive, faculty deserve the recognition: "Faculty have an 80% student success rate in math."

The former is about student-deficit thinking and external attributions. The latter is about self-reflection and internal attributions. The latter also contributes to a culture of continuous improvement.

For students who have many community colleges to chose from in their geographic area, I wish there was an easy way for them to shop around and choose colleges with math and English gateway courses that have the highest success rates. The highest rates doesn't mean the content is less rigorous. It means the faculty elevated their instructional practices and support for students.

Story: Succeeding Despite Tremendous Gaps in Math Content Knowledge
As a returning student after serving in the Gulf and in Somalia in the Marine Corps, I chose a community college thirty-five minutes away versus the one that was five minutes away because the closer college had bad customer service. They lost my financial aid package and the counselor did her make-up in the mirror the entire time during my first counseling session! Prior to enrolling, I also found out I had to take a high stakes test to place in math. I had a C- in high school math and hadn't done any math in four years. Fortunately, I had the money to pay for a tutoring company to help me prep for the placement exam. I placed into transfer-level math, but not because I truly understood the content. Instead, more than anything, the tutor showed me test-taking tricks and strategies. I succeeded in transfer-level math because I was fortunate to have a faculty member who cared enough to actually lesson plan and deliver quality lessons, including putting us in groups to work on problems together. Despite huge gaps in my math content knowledge and low confidence in my academic abilities, it's the support and quality teaching that got me through math.

So, tremendous job Citrus College math faculty! Keep it at! Those equity gaps will close soon! You're on the right track! Thank you!


Ivory Tower Fatigue
On a related note, a growing number of community college educators have shared with me that they're suffering from "Ivory Tower fatigue." The fatigue stems from university researchers who generate social justice & equity research who, in turn, lecture and chastise community colleges for inequitable outcomes, yet they seem to lack the same level of passion to make changes within their own institutions. Community college professionals are wondering why Ivory Tower professionals aren't aggressively fighting to end inequitable tests such as the GRE that block people of color from entering graduate programs. They're wondering why these professionals aren't aggressively pushing to make sure that all graduate students at their institution receive critical training in equity and pedagogy. We have a leaky bucket situation where community colleges get their faculty from the institutions that fail to have a diverse graduate student body, and fail to prepare their graduate students to teach at community college and open access universities. These are some of the same institutions that chastise community colleges for producing inequitable outcomes. Unfortunately, instead of owning it and stating that they'll do a better job, many of these Ivory Tower professionals get defensive, remain quiet, or fail to openly acknowledge--loud and clear for everyone to hear--that their own institutions contribute to inequitable outcomes at community college and open access universities.

***Orignial Article***

May 1, 2018

 “Educator Spotlight” highlights practitioners and researchers in order to learn from them student success strategies. These strategies can be evidence-based, research-based, and/or promising practices.

Educator Spotlight: Michael Wangler, Citrus College Dean of Mathematics & Business

Michael has been a dean at Los Angeles County area Citrus College since 2017. He has served as a member of the Citrus College AB 705 multiple measure placement Implementation Team and has led the Mathematics Program to full-implementation of AB 705. Prior to Citrus, Michael taught Geography and Earth Sciences for sixteen years at Cuyamaca College in San Diego County, where he also served as Curriculum Chair, Accreditation Co-Chair, and Academic Senate President.


Given that for decades community college students have been stuck in a remedial math quagmire, what’s been implemented at the college to place students into transfer-level math and help them be successful?

We started by looking at our own internal data and mapping students who started 2 or 3 levels below transfer. We found that the vast majority of students who begin in basic skills do not complete a transfer-level math course, even when single course success rates are relatively high. For example, if we assume success and persistence rates of 70%, only 17% of students who begin 2 levels below transfer and 8% of students who begin 3 levels below transfer will successfully make it through the basic skills sequence and complete a transfer-level course.

Statewide research suggests that if these same students are placed directly into transfer-level coursework at least 50% will be successful. As a result of this study, we adopted a multiple measures assessment and placement approach that uses a rubric to incorporate a student’s overall high school GPA and the last math class completed in high school with a C- or better. Initially, we used the disjunctive method for placing students, where we compared a student’s high school record with their placement exam score and placed students based on the higher of the two measures. Upon analyzing these data, we found that placements based on a student’s high school record was equal to or greater than the placement exam for 95% of all students.

As a result, we discontinued our use of the placement exam and we now place all students into math based on their high school record, or an evaluation of college transcripts for those students who’ve already completed course work at another college. In addition, we’ve eliminated our basic skills sequence and place all students directly into transfer-level math courses. For students in need of extra support, we’ve developed co-requisite courses at the transfer-level that are schedule back-to-back with the main course as a block, hard linked as a learning community, and taught by the same instructor. In addition, we utilize just-in-time remediation, productive struggle, and growth mindset in the classroom. We also utilize embedded tutors in the classroom as well as after class study sessions.

How did students respond to the change?

Interestingly, some students were resistant at first because they had become accustomed to the content delivery/lecture model. The classroom experience has been transformed from a passive lecture-based format to an active collaborative environment where students work together as a cohort and learn from each other instead of being lectured to the whole time.

We went from this:

To this:

Over time, students got more comfortable with this approach and ended up liking it better in the end. Here’s a sample of student survey responses:

“Group work (i.e. working with peers) was effective in helping me learn in this course.”

“I gained a sense of responsibility by being in this course.”

“My instructor helped me succeed in this course by reviewing foundations skills right before we tackled more complex problems.”

“I gained a sense of community by being in this course.”

“The collaborative learning environment is one reason I came to class.”

What’s the data tell you now as a result of these changes?

In fall 2015, 18% of first-time college students had access to transfer-level math. It’s currently 56% and will be 100% starting in Fall 2019. In addition, in 2015-16, our one-year completion rate in math was 19%, and we’re expecting this to be close to 60% by the end of this current academic year (2018-19). Latino/a/x students one-year completion rates in transfer-level math nearly doubled (15% to 28%) within a three-year period, and nearly tripled for African-American students (10% to 27%). There are still some equity gaps and we’re working hard to address them.

Please describe faculty’s role.

From my perspective, faculty understood the daunting story the data was telling them. Extremely low success rates in math became unacceptable. Our colleagues at the English department felt the same way about remedial English. Before AB 705 was passed, the college was already moving forward with strategies to deal with the challenges in both remedial English and math.

Our faculty came together to conduct research on promising practices, learn from one another, and to understand what other campuses implemented successfully. As a result, our faculty members have created an inclusive, student-centered classroom environment where students build confidence, collaborate with their peers and learn critical thinking skills contextualized to the real world. Faculty led the changes and will continue to make adjustments to implementation as they analyze data and garner student feedback.

What’s been your approach as a dean when leading change?

In higher education we tend to talk a lot about believing in the capacity of our students, which is critically important and essential for the concurrent support model to work; however, it's just as important to believe in the capacity of faculty. As dean, I’ve tried to provide faculty with the resources and space to innovate and create a student-centered classroom environment where students can build confidence and receive the support they need in order to thrive and be successful.


Also visit:

Instructional Practices Key Finding

Increasing Latino/a/x Student Success

Elephant in the Room: Instruction in Higher Education

How to implement culture change & continuous improvement at your institution.


Guide: Why Colleges Struggle to Implement Priorities & What To Do About It


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