Three Organizations to Collaborate to Improve Student Success in Mathematics

January 15, 2014

Initiative Announced at January 16 White House Event on College Opportunity

In early 2014, Achieving the Dream, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Jobs for the Future will jointly explore with community colleges, higher education organizations, philanthropy, and other stakeholders the feasibility of creating a “Breakthrough Collaborative” to address the alarming failure rate of students in post-secondary remedial mathematics or “gateway” courses.

This is not a trivial problem. Eighty percent of students who place into developmental mathematics do not complete a college-level course within three years. Many spend long periods of time repeating courses and most simply leave college without a credential. As a consequence, millions of students each year are not able to progress toward their career and life goals. Equally important, these students lack command of the math that matters for personal life in an increasingly quantitative age and to be critically engaged citizens. In addition, a disproportionate number of these students come from traditionally underserved populations.

Achieving the Dream (ATD) provides expertise in institutional change. Carnegie provides expertise in faculty engagement and curriculum reform. Jobs for the Future (JFF) provides expertise in policy development and implementation.

The Breakthrough Collaborative is a strategy that has proven to be a powerful structure for broad-scale quality improvement in healthcare and has the potential, with appropriate modifications, for turning the same power loose for educational improvement. In this case, it will join colleges willing to collect common data and progress markers to learn together as they implement and improve promising practices that accelerate progression through remediation and gateway courses.

The idea of a Breakthrough Collaborative is to: (1) identify the specific targeted (and measureable) problems to be solved; (2) generate a short list of “promising solutions” per target; (3) develop a shared working theory of practice improvement (i.e., what specific problems will need to be solved in order to integrate effectively any one or more of these change ideas into any given institution); (4) engage members willing to commit individually and as a community to measurable progress—“what outcomes to be accomplished by when” with regular data feedback as to “how are we doing?”; (5) agree to operate as a networked community using the disciplined methods and tools of improvement research to generate practice-based evidence to guide progress toward these measurable targets; and (6) agree to participate as a leadership learning community that assembles a few times a year to learn from each other and use this in turn to accelerate improvement together.

The three organizations would function as a hub for this leadership learning community. Presumably it would have three strands: (1) state-level policy and capacity-building to enable this innovative activity to occur (JFF); (2) institutional leadership to motivate, catalyze and support this improvement activity within each college (ATD); and (3) an improvement research learning center (Carnegie) and analytic hub (Carnegie).

Together, the organizations would assemble for the Collaborative the necessary policy, institutional leadership, and instructional expertise to move work forward (including regular reporting on progress as a mechanism for internal accountability and local incentive). The key idea is to exploit the capacity of structured networks to develop practice-based evidence to accelerate improvement rather than each place going it alone.

The initiative builds on the Carnegie Foundation’s efforts that in the first two years have tripled the success rate of students who placed into developmental mathematics courses in half the time. Carnegie formed a network of community colleges, professional associations, and educational researchers to develop and implement the Community College Pathways Program, organized around two structured pathways, known as Statway® and Quantway®. Students and faculty are now joined in a common, intensive year-long experience toward the shared goals of achieving college math credit in one year and reclaiming their mathematical lives for a lifetime.