By: Don Stewart
Students at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) and nationwide are struggling with math. According to figures from the CCP Office of Institutional Research, 49% of students here at the college, place below the college math level of Math 118 and fall into developmental mathematics courses Math 016 or 017.
In an effort to produce better numbers, Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Judy Gay released a proposal that would divide the Math Department in two, one for developmental courses 016, 017 and in a new move, the Math 118 course would fall under this department as well, losing its “credit” bearing status.
Dr. Gay’s plan would be considered a centralized approach, which means that developmental courses are provided by a separate Developmental Education Department. Currently the College is using a decentralized approach, which means developmental courses and credit math courses are taught together by the same faculty and are a part of the same department. This method is the most common approach amongst colleges and universities in the U.S. according to a Department of Education report.
In the proposal, Dr. Gay states the reason for the change is, “Our current approach to developmental mathematics is not working.” She further highlights the success of neighboring community colleges such as Delaware and Bucks County Community Colleges for the improvements in developmental math.
Dr. Gay opened her proposal with a quote by Dr. Uri Treisman, professor of mathematics and Executive Director of the Charles A. Dana Center. It read, “Developmental mathematics has become a burial ground for the aspirations of a myriad of students trying to improve their lives through education.”
Dr. Treisman is a well-known leader in math and science. In 2006 he won the Scientist of the year award by Harvard.
“Uri’s notable contributions to mathematics and his admirable work with minority students deserves special recognition,” said Dr. S. Allen Counter, Director of the Harvard Foundation.
After contacting Dr. Treisman on the split of the math department here at CCP he responded by email with the following: “In general, I do not think it good practice to segregate programs for students needing remediation from regular departmental programs. I do understand that sometimes campus administrators who lack confidence in their Math Departments pursue this strategy. In such cases there are often better solutions to the issues at hand.”
In Department Head of Mathematics, Brenton Webber’s, eleven-page response to Dr. Gay’s proposal, he states, “The Mathematics Department is firmly against this proposal” and “has evidence of improvement within reasonable expectations.”
Webber also points out that Delaware and Bucks County Community Colleges are having success, but also have different students than that of CCP’s. The average CCP student is older and has spent more time away from high school. In addition, as Webber notes, CCP students are also coming from an already troubled Philadelphia School District, which struggles with math.
Webber further mentions that there, “is a trend away from centralized math models,” referencing a 1997 move by Bucks County Community College that placed their Basic Algebra course back into the regular math department.
Student responses to the split and the Math Department in general are mixed; however, the consensus from students was that most CCP math instructors are doing a poor job of covering the material and preparing students who are already unfamiliar with math.
Sarah, a current 118 student said, “It’s [math 118] complex enough for me to gather all the information and stop right there. I don’t need to go any further; we touch on everything from basic common numbers to dividing fractions It covers everything full circle. If I’m a Communications major then why [take more math classes]? That’s just greedy.”
Rashad, also in math 118 says that his biggest barrier to 017 was, “He [math instructor]did not speak good English. Nearly everyone in the class complained. Many people dropped the class.” Rashad said that his peers did not know the proper steps to take to file a complaint against the instructor.
Claudia, a non-traditional student said that her experience in 017 was horrible. She took the class twice. She said, “One time we did get him to try and teach us things and he said well you should know these things already. But for someone like me who hasn’t been in school for a while how am I supposed to know? There were kids right from out of high school that didn’t understand [the math work].”
I asked her what she did to resolve the matter and she said she complained to department head, Brenton Webber, and his response was ‘well you should have came earlier in the year’. When asked about her math 118 class Claudia said her biggest challenge was the final exam.
According to statistics provided by the Math Department, between Fall 2009 and Spring 2010 there was an average drop of 11.9% in overall passing grades (A, B, or C) for math 016, 017 and 118 classes. Withdraws also doubled for 016 and 118 for that same period. Webber correlates this dramatic decrease in results to the “implementation of the departmental final exam.”
Students are unfamiliar with the new computerized testing and the time counter for the final exam is unforgiving to human error. There is already a mixed message from different Math 017 and 118 instructors in regards to using the mymathlab website that would help familiarize students with the computerized final exam format. Creating a new department could possibly further complicate communications.
The mathematics department has been making attempts to produce better student numbers as outlined in Webbers response; however, the key to this lies with the students as they are the ones with the problem.
A popular student opinion based website, ratemyprofessor.com, rated one CCP math instructor and 24 times students had complaints they could not understand the teacher’s English; two said he was just a bad instructor.