Math literacy skills are important to success in school, work, and life. Yet rather than serving as a foundation for that success, math education too often filters and blocks student progress. Of all school subjects, math sets up the most barriers to college.
First, math education is structured like a ladder, requiring each step to be completed before progressing. In addition, the concept of math ability as innate is deeply ingrained into our society. Many people describe themselves as “not a math person,” and research shows that most teachers teach math with a focus on getting the correct answer rather than examining mistakes as a path to improvement.
Most harmed by the inflexible system of math education are students from low-income families and communities of color. Research shows that they are less likely to attend schools with quality math courses or skilled teachers, they are more likely to be assessed into lower math pathways, and they are not expected to excel. Their math education effectively shuts them out of college.
The current conversation about whether the California State University system should add a requirement for admissions recognizes that math education plays an important role in college success. Zee Cline, co-director of CSU’s Center for the Advancement of Instruction in Quantitative Reasoning, said CSU wants students to come to college better prepared. Currently, applicants need to complete three years of math, including intermediate algebra. The proposal would require an additional year of quantitative reasoning, or applied math. 
How the additional requirement would impact equity is up for debate. Cline said students would have more opportunities because high schools would be compelled to offer additional classes to meet the new criteria. But college access and civil rights groups say that expectation is unrealistic, given the shortage of resources. They argue that districts serving low-income families and communities of color already struggle with a lack of qualified teachers and course options; a new admissions requirement would put college even farther out of reach.
California currently requires high school graduates to complete two years of math, but the CSU system says that about 78 percent of incoming students have taken four years of math. However, data is not available on the demographic background of CSU applicants and their high school math history or how the proposal might impact the racial, income, and geographic makeup of future applicants.
Over the past few years, College Futures Foundation has increasingly supported programs and research on math education and best practices to increase higher education opportunities for students. What we have learned can help inform the discussion about what types of changes are most needed.
Since 2016, the Foundation has supported a partnership between Los Angeles Unified School District and CSU Northridge to co-develop and implement a college preparatory math course so that high school seniors would have an option other than calculus or pre-calculus. The state funded similar programs at five public universities and their area K-12 districts. When the state’s two-year grants expired in 2018, the Foundation continued supporting three of the programs, at San Diego State University, Sacramento State University, and CSU Monterey Bay.
The collaborations between the CSUs and their K-12 district partners have resulted in courses that differ in curriculum, but all try to reduce the barriers that many students have faced in traditional math classes. The courses leverage these common elements:
- The content is relevant to students and emphasizes applications to careers and life. Lessons include topics such as data analysis, personal finance, and modeling different outcomes.
- Teaching strategies are equity-focused, collaborative, and project-based to better engage students. Teachers work on critical thinking and understanding rather than getting the right answer as quickly as possible.
- Assessment techniques are designed to measure student progress to advance learning, including student reflection and assessing how students approach a problem.
- Alignment is built in because CSU and K-12 math faculty are co-developing the courses to meet college pre-requisites and admissions requirements.
Research supported by the Foundation on the largest collaboration, CSU Northridge and LAUSD, shows some promising results for their fourth-year math course, Transitions to College Math and Statistics. Teachers and students felt the course fostered learning and understanding, based on San Francisco-based Harder + Company Community Research findings using quantitative data, interviews, focus groups, and surveys from the 2017–2018 school year.
Students said they liked the pacing of the course and the smaller class sizes. “I’ve learned more in this course than I’ve learned for the past three years in high school, because all those years were rushed, and I only learned the subject just for the test,” one student said. “…But for this class, we learn it, and we actually remember what to do later on.”
Another student said: “I really never liked word problems, and this has a lot of word problems that you have to apply and understand in order to move on. I’ve actually become very good at that.”
Evaluations from teachers were largely positive. One teacher said students “know it’s hard, and I tell them it’s hard but then they get it. And it’s kind of empowering for them.”
Most interestingly, students’ demographic characteristics, such as ethnicity, gender, English proficiency, and income did not seem to correspond to their likelihood of passing the course. Their performance had greater correlation with their grade point averages and 11th grade Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium scores. Researchers said additional information and data are needed to understand and evaluate whether student outcomes from the new course were significantly more equitable than in traditional math courses.
At LAUSD, the most widely offered math class outside of the algebra-calculus sequence is statistics, which was taken by 16 percent of seniors enrolled in math. The new math course, Transitions to College Math and Statistics, is offered at about half of the district’s high schools and drew 7% of LAUSD seniors. Two percent or fewer take other alternative math courses, such as quantitative reasoning and data science.
Findings from the study underscore the difficulty of introducing and sustaining the new math course:
- Administrators, counselors, and teachers need better understanding of the purpose of the course and how to identify students for enrollment. Many do not realize that courses other than pre-calculus or calculus can help students prepare for college. Expansively defining the route to college will include more students who have potential to achieve.
- Teachers feel that the course can be rewarding, yet more challenging to teach. Not only do teachers have to know the content, but they need to become comfortable with new instructional approaches. Unlike traditional math classes, the new course emphasizes collaboration and how lessons are applied. The course also requires more reading, which can be more difficult for some students.
- Teachers need significant professional development and support. LAUSD offers four to five daylong sessions of professional development each year, open to veteran teachers and newer instructors. Teachers said they want more instructional materials and resources and ways to easily share information and best practices with each other.
The challenges involved in making changes in math education were also emphasized in a 2016 report by the CSU Academic Senate’s Quantitative Reasoning Task Force. The task force recommended that the CSU system require applicants to take four years of math, but acknowledged that implementation would be an “ambitious endeavor – one that will take time, collaboration, resources, and most importantly, an attention to equity.”
The CSU system made a step toward more equity in math education last fall by eliminating placement tests that had sent many students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, to remedial courses. Grades and high school assessments now determine where students are placed, all courses are taught at the college-level, and additional support is offered to those who need academic help.
Early results of the reform efforts are encouraging. For fall semester 2018, the pass rate of college-level lower-division math classes remained at 66 percent, even though more than eight times as many students attempted the classes. More than 1,400 enrolled in the college-level classes before the reform; after, sign-ups increased to nearly 12,000 students, most of whom would have been placed in remedial classes previously. If these results continue, they will strongly challenge the assumption that large numbers of students are entering CSU unprepared to do college-level work.
What’s already clear is that further changes are needed in math education so that more students, especially those from low-income families and communities of color, can get to and through college. Should CSU continue to explore an additional requirement for admissions, one main issue needs to be addressed before a decision is made: How can the quality of math courses be raised for all students?
Quality means more than quantity. An additional year of math or any other course makes little difference if the class is not effective and the student is not engaged. Students and teachers in the LAUSD pilot math program said more learning was achieved when they delved deeper in fewer topics with teaching strategies that emphasized equity and collaboration. Likewise, the reforms at CSU that took away – rather than added requirements — are showing promise. Instructional support and expectations count more toward student success.
The “math problem” is embedded throughout our education system, with a student’s experience in the early grades impacting their likelihood of getting into college. In tackling these challenges, we need to leverage the problem-solving techniques used in the most effective math courses. Collaboration between educational systems is essential to creating and sustaining change. Because the barriers to math are multi-dimensional, different solutions are needed; we can have more than one answer. Most important, believing that we can learn from our mistakes and excel means that we can and will achieve more.
 This could include courses in higher level math, science, and vocational topics such as computer science, engineering, and design.