When there’s a substantial shift in the way you are measured, big things seem to happen.
This fall, that big thing was a visit to Portland Community College by American mathematician and mathematics educator Philip Uri Treisman. The director of the Charles A. Dana Center and professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke to staff and faculty during PCC’s In-Service week at the Southeast Center and the Sylvania Campus in September.
Treisman is credited with pioneering the Emerging Scholars Program aimed at helping students from underprivileged backgrounds excel in calculus and other courses in science. The program was first implemented at the University of California-Berkeley and has now been disseminated throughout college campuses across the United States. His efforts to improve American education have been recognized by Newsweek, The Harvard Foundation and The MacArthur Foundation, among other publications and societies.
“Bringing Dr. Uri Treisman to PCC was important because it allowed us to gain an informed, high-level perspective concerning the teaching of math and the relevance of this topic for all stakeholders in the community college,” said Jessica Howard, president of the Extended Learning Campus/Southeast Center. “Dr. Treisman is not only an innovative thinker and a consummate mathematician; he is an educator who knows the current research and data relating to success for our students. Having him speak at PCC was not only informative; it was a call to action and a confirmation of the importance of the community college in our country’s future.”
Speaker underscores PCC’s big shift
This coup of getting a nationally respected speaker resulted from PCC’s big shift from access to success and completion. The shift has been spurred externally by the state of Oregon’s emphasis on completion and measuring community colleges, tying into the state’s “40-40-20” Initiative (40 percent of the state’s adults have four-year college degrees, 40 percent have two-year degrees, and the remaining 20 percent have high school diplomas by 2025). The bottomline is that the state’s community colleges must make sure students achieve their goals, whether its earning a certificate, career pathway, associate’s degree, or transitioning from developmental education to college level courses.
“We are in the midst of a paradigm shift for community colleges when it comes to what and how we serve our students,” said Chris Chairsell, Vice President of Academic & Student Affairs. “We have to change our own behavior before we can change the behavior of students as we try to meet these kinds of metrics that are judging us.”
College council works on smoothing Panther Path
The Completion Investment Council (CIC) was formed last year to help PCC make this shift. The council is composed of a cross section of faculty, staff and administrators to provide advice and guidance. Their aim is to improve success and completion while responding to the regional and national completion agenda. The council wants to make sure students have financial preparedness, are able to complete courses, can attain college-level reading, writing and math skills, transfer to universities, or achieve a certificate, degree, employment or advancement within a job.
The council created a roadmap and organizing tool to help advance this mandated student success and completion. They call it the “Panther Path” where students go on an educational journey that includes, “Prepare, Engage, Commit, Complete and Thrive.” The CIC has been focused on the “Prepare” part of the path, analyzing data from the learning process to find what is most challenging for students.
“Panther Path gives us a visual of how the student progresses through the organization,” Chairsell said. “To complete, students have to commit and engage, but they can’t do any of that unless they are prepared.”
Student data shows math skills lacking
The Completion Investment Council has looked at a lot of data about students since it was formed. From the data they found that among the 1,000-plus credit courses taught every term, 50 percent of enrollment is focused on just 49 classes. They also found that no math, developmental education or math intensive courses were in the high success-rated category. Conversely, in the high enrollment, low success category of classes, all but two were developmental writing, reading and math courses.
In a fall term 2012 survey of 4,500 students who took the placement test, 88 percent were placed into developmental math. Thirty-four percent of the students were placed into the bottom class (Math 20), which is at least three courses away from the minimum math standard for some associate’s degrees. In data tracking of the 2010 fall term cohort of new students placed into Math 20, 76 percent completed their course, 41 percent eventually went on and completed Math 60, and 24 percent were able to finish Math 65 by the end of fall 2012, two full years later.
“Math in general is a challenge and is a national issue,” Chairsell said. “If students don’t come to us prepared they are not going to succeed. We know students aren’t coming prepared. During this terrible recession, people with high school credentials lost their jobs and couldn’t find work. They’ve been away from math for a very long time and they come back not ready. Our clientele has changed significantly. People that were in the workforce with no intention of coming back to college have lost their jobs and now are here and not prepared.”
Chairsell added that the data suggests there is a need for a clear strategic plan with institutional priorities from the president and the board directors; development of a college-wide math achievement culture; leverage technology to create a robust student communication system; constantly review strategies and practices; and continue to explore classroom instruction strategies and align them with student services.
Math pioneer’s visit drives point home
Enter Uri Treisman.
His speech talked about aligning the classroom with student services. He said colleges need to get great faculty that have, or are open to, that sort of approach.
Treisman said PCC can leverage its strengths to tackle the developmental math issue by creating a sense of community and belonging for students. One solution, which illustrates his point of joining student services with what happens in the classroom, was not to wait for the students to come to the tutoring center. Have the tutoring center staff work directly with the math instructor beginning on the first day of class, Treisman said. They can collectively identify the students who may have difficulties with the coursework or may not feel part of the class and reach out to those students.
“When students come to the college, they are sure they are going to succeed,” he added. “After the first assignment in math, they are blown away and become demotivated and already start lowering their expectations. After three weeks, they start to doubt whether they can really do this.
“Tutoring assumes students will come to that ‘tutoring community’ when they realize one or two weeks into math (they are overwhelmed),” Treisman said. “The problem is, once you are a week behind in math – you are already dead in the water. It’s too late. The group study format equals better student performance and a sense of belonging.”