Leveraging Cross-Sector Partnerships to Redesign High School Mathematics

Thursday, February 3, 2022
Jhenai Chandler
Associate Director

Over the course of my 13-year tenure in advising and academic affairs at both open-access community colleges and selective four-year institutions, I uttered the words “You have to change your major or find a different program” far too many times—disproportionately to Black and Hispanic students. And what you may find surprising is that those on the receiving end of this news were actually great students. Unfortunately, they were derailed by Algebra-centered courses irrelevant to their career interests. 

I often wonder about those students, their deferred dreams, and the ways inequitable mathematics policies and practices impacted their educational journey, and ultimately, social and economic mobility. My experience witnessing students change majors or stop out entirely because of mathematics requirements is not an anomaly; mathematics courses are found to be a significant barrier to college access and degree completion across the country. For far too long we’ve filtered out students from academic programs and credit-bearing courses based on their performance in Algebra-intensive courses that are often unrelated to their postsecondary plans. 

A growing number of higher education systems have already taken action to transform college mathematics courses from “gatekeepers” to “gateways” to students’ career aspirations. States such as Florida, New York, Tennessee, and Texas have redesigned policies granting more students access to college-level mathematics courses and alternatives to College Algebra, such as Statistics or Quantitative Reasoning, that are more relevant to students’ degree and career plans. Similarly in Indiana, students are advised on gateway mathematics options according to their respective meta-major or area of study. However, this realignment of mathematics and postsecondary plans must occur earlier in students’ educational journeys. Students today have a wide array of postsecondary options and should have access to high-quality mathematics pathways that prepare them for success in college, careers, and civic life. Even though only 5 percent of today’s careers require advanced mathematical skills taught in most College Algebra courses, some states still require high school students to complete Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II—a sequence that prepares students for Calculus—whether they plan to pursue a STEM or Calculus-intensive degree or career not.

Cross-Sector Conditions for Implementation of High School Mathematics Redesign 

Over the last few years, ESG has supported efforts to redesign and expand high school mathematics options in Ohio, Indiana, and in partnership with the Charles A. Dana Center, Georgia, Texas, and Washington. As a Launch Years partner, ESG helped catalyze cross-sector collaboration between state secondary, higher education, and workforce partners to modernize high school mathematics course options to ensure students have access to course content on problem solving, statistical analysis, and mathematical modeling—skills necessary to succeed in today’s workforce. Each state had a unique approach and focus to implement multiple, rigorous high school mathematics pathways to better prepare students for successful postsecondary transitions; but at the heart of all of the work was a deep partnership between K-12, higher education, and workforce leaders and practitioners

More specifically, we’ve learned through this work that higher education buy-in is a critical component to equitable implementation. The ultimate goal is to expand access to higher education opportunities, and therefore, mathematics reform decisions must consider potential implications for early postsecondary opportunities, college admissions, and placement policies of institutions across states. In conjunction with the Community College Research Center, we conducted extensive research with Launch Years participants for deeper insight on the underlying challenges and roles higher education should have in secondary mathematics redesign efforts

Although mathematics courses have historically been gatekeepers to postsecondary success, cross-sector collaboration can lead to new policies and practices that will produce a diverse talent pool of high school graduates equipped with mathematical skills relevant for college, career and civic life today.