The Making of a Math Movement

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Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, at the recent Carnegie Corporation-sponsored meeting "Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics: Mobilizing for Action."

Transforming mathematics education at community colleges, 4-year colleges, and research universities

College math has often been "sink or swim" for students. But instead of sitting by while students struggle with algebra and calculus and their career paths narrow, a group of high-level mathematicians have joined together to “fix” math.  In June, many of those big thinkers were convened by Carnegie Corporation of New York to present their ideas to representatives of foundations and education nonprofits sharing an interest in addressing mathematical problems that cannot be solved on any blackboard.

The challenge put to the meeting participants was how to transform the discipline of mathematics, at all levels, in order to tackle the barriers that block a large number of students from completing college, and ultimately embarking on a rewarding career. “To give money is easy,” said Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation. "To build ideas is difficult.”

Leading the charge is Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics (TPSE Math), a partnership that launched in 2013 with support from Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

At the meeting, a series of grim statistics demonstrated the urgent need for mathematics reform across the post-secondary landscape. For example, 60% of students attending the nation’s 1,200 community colleges were put into remedial math classes in 2012—for no credit. Staggeringly, 80% of those students would eventually fail their remedial math classes or a subsequent regular math course. At the university level, 40% of all engineering students and 60% of computer science students drop out of their programs or end up switching fields. Such rates of attrition are not healthy for the country, especially at a time when the demand for graduates with strong mathematics skills is expanding in most fields. “We are failing our kids,” said LaVerne Srinivasan, vice president of Carnegie Corporation's National Program. “We are failing our country by not preparing students adequately for higher education and careers in STEM.”

Phillip Griffiths, professor emeritus of mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study and chair of TPSE Math's Board of Governors, said that experiments are taking place at the local level throughout the mathematics community. He told the gathering that “TPSE Math will identify innovative practices where they exist and advocate for innovation where they do not, and work with and through partners to implement and scale effective practices.”

William “Brit” Kirwan, a mathematician and chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland and executive director of TPSE Math, mapped out the movement’s strategy: 1) Make math relevant by broadening the curriculum, meeting the needs of students at all levels and from a range of disciplines. 2) Train educators in more effective teaching methods, redesign courses, and don’t be afraid to experiment in the classroom. 3) Develop partnerships with people both inside and outside the mathematics department, while reaching out to leaders in government, nongovernmental organizations, and foundations.

Participants at the meeting recommended programs to investigate and offered their support. Some voiced constructive concerns. Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, encouraged TPSE Math to get other academic disciplines on board as well. “It’s a heavy lift when you are talking to a faculty senate and trying to implement a new direction for curriculum.”

Kirwan reminded the group that university administrators are very concerned about college completion rates, and they see mathematics as the primary obstacle for many students. And that’s where, he pointed out, the power of partnerships come in. “You can bring the presidents and provosts together, we can bring the mathematicians together. That combination is our best hope making systemic change.”

TPSE Math is working to build a movement that addresses more than just mathematics. There is a broadly diverse group of students entering college today, including returning veterans, former stay-at-home moms, and young men and women from underserved communities. “Can we really tell them," asked Daniel Goroff, vice president and program director at the Sloan Foundation, "that we are doing the best that we can to make sure that these courses work for them?" He assured the group that "if we work together on this, the answer will be yes.”

Vartan Gregorian agreed, observing that "we need to provide true equality, and not organized inequality.” He reminded people that Abraham Lincoln launched the first public university in the middle of the Civil War, making the workforce of America ready for the coming Industrial Revolution. For today’s students, Gregorian concluded, the goal is nothing less than “to bring coherence and logic to the teaching of mathematics and rescue democracy’s future.”