Math Department Changes Underway

System called unjust

By Scott Wise

In wake of criticism that the university's math program is "unjust," UWM administrators will be making changes to the math department.

Associate Vice Chancellor Phyllis King announced the changes during the Academic Planning and Budget Committee meeting Nov. 7 in Garland Hall.

“How can we admit 1,500 students who end up in developmental math and fail?” King asked. “It has been like this for years.” 

King specifically mentioned UWM alum Jamaal Abdul-Alim's article, "Dropouts Tell No Tales," published in Washington Monthly magazine. The article highlighted UWM’s low graduation rates, especially for African-Americans, and touched on how math is a hard subject for students to pass. The author even directly challenged UWM administrators by writing, “Many UWM faculty and administrators I spoke to know that the university has a problem when it comes to math completion rates. It’s not clear, though, whether their heads are sufficiently in the game when it comes to the tough task of changing the institution to better serve at-risk students.”

King and UWM certainly took notice. Addressing a potential solution for the problem, King said the change comes at three fronts: instructional reform, placement reform and pathway reform.

"We have journalists saying we have developed an unjust [math] system,” King said. “And I agree.”

UWM’s current math system is “geared toward calculus by a step by step approach,” according to the math department chair Kyle Swanson. Students have to place out of or pass, math 090, 095 and 105 before being able to take what is considered college level math. Math 090 is the lowest level math, but students still have trouble passing, according to King.

“We have had students fail math 090 four times.”

King went on to mention the correlation between students needing remedial math and not graduating.

“Of the entire 2004 new freshman needing remedial math, only 31 percent graduated in six years."

Adding to the issue is the fact that different UW schools have different placement scores for the cut-off between needing developmental math and being at a college ready level, according to King. Varying scores can lead to students being place at a higher or lower level depending on the school.

“We had a student place in math 090 here, left for Marquette and graduated with an engineer degree in four years.” King said.

The issue of defining what exactly college-ready math is only adds to the placement issue.

“We don’t have a definition of college-ready math,” King said. “If we were to ask [the math department], they would say ‘you tell us.’”

Swanson did address this topic in a follow-up interview, “Different institutions have different missions,” Swanson said. “You can’t compare UW-Madison to UW-Milwaukee. Madison accepts students with an ACT score around 28 compared to Milwaukee at, around, 21. We can’t sit here and say the college level math is the same for the two.”

The proposed pathway reform creates three new pathways for students in math and still keep math 090 for students who come in through the Academic Opportunity Center, according to Swanson. The first pathway is called the “math literacy pathway.” This pathway will be for students who would have placed in math 090 or for students whose major doesn’t require algebra. This is a two semester pathway to get to college level math. The “algebraic literacy pathway” is for majors that require algebra and is also a two semester pathway. The “placement pathway” is the final pathway for students who were placed at a college level.

For students placed in the first two pathways, there is also an “accelerated pathway,” which is a part of UW-College’s math pilot program. According to Swanson, the program allows for a student to finish the general education requirement for math in just one semester.

The pathway reform directly affects the instructional reform in its nature, due to creating a new math system as a whole. However, it also deals with much more than just that.

King acknowledged that a lot of teaching assistants, who teach the developmental classes, need to be better prepared to teach math. She said that training sessions are underway to help them better teach the students.

King also announced that by fall of 2014, the university will start enforcing the Board of Regents’ 30 credit policy. The policy requires all students complete their remedial credits within the first 30 credits. It should be noted that the policy has been around for 10 years, but the university hasn’t enforced it.

Underlying the instructional and pathway reforms is the placement reform. Students take the placement test to determine whether they’re ready for college level math or need to be placed in remedial math. The placement test as of now is a 60 to 70 question multiple answer test, according to Swanson.

“We are exploring changing the placement test itself,” Swanson said.

The placement reform also deals with getting students ready before college.

“It starts with the K-12 system,” King said.

She stressed the importance of getting students to take the early math placement test as a junior in high school, studying for the test and taking the test multiple times if necessary. King also touched on summer bridge programs like Panther Math Prep that helps incoming students get prepared for math.  

Swanson said the new math system will move away from a calculus based approach, to a more hands on approach for the students.

“We want more active learning in the classroom,” Swanson said. “If students are learning math from a textbook, they are not really learning. They are just learning to decode the textbook. We are moving to giving the students harder problems with minimal help so they work together and help each other out.”

In a more general reform, King said UWM is starting to work with Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) to establish better college math preparation and transfer policies.

The three schools are working together in what is called the Milwaukee Connected Community, according to Swanson.

“We are working with MATC and MPS to talk about curriculum alignment for kids who know they want to go to college,” Swanson said. “We can gear their curricular towards that and help them learn more before college.”

King and Swanson both stressed that the reforms are still very much in the beginning stages, but changes are coming.  

As King ended her presentation, she left the committee with an optimistic look into the future.

“Look for more positive changes to come.”



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