Last weekend I attended the 25th Annual Conference of The Virginia Mathematical Association of Two Year Colleges (VMATYC), Virginia's chapter of the American Mathematical Association of Two Year Colleges (AMATYC). This was the first educational conference I have been to since I started teaching developmental math two and half years ago, so it was a very exciting event for me. What follows is my account of the seminars I attended at the VMATYC and what I learned from the experience. I've tried my best to summarize the events I attended from my notes, but please contact me if there are any inaccuracies.

I missed the early sessions on Friday due to class, but made it in time for the seminar I was most interested in: The Developmental Math Redesign Team (DMRT) Progress Report.

# DMRT Progress Report

Virginia's Community College System (VCCS) has been in the process of “redesigning” the developmental math program for about two years now, and is now in the process of implementing some major changes to the way developmental math is handled at the community college level. The report was presented by Dr. Susan Wood, Dr. Donna Jovanovich, and Jane Serbousek.

Dr. Susan Wood began the discussion with a broad overview of the DMRT program. The DMRT began in 2009 with the publication of The Turning Point: Developmental Education in Virginia's Community Colleges, which highlighted some of the problems facing developmental math students. This document set forward the goal for the developmental education redesign, which is specifically targeted at increasing the number of students that go on to complete degree programs. The Turning Point also initiated the Developmental Mathematics Redesign Team. The following year, the DMRT published The Critical Point: Redesign Developmental Mathematics Education in Virginia's Community College System, which outlines the proposed changes to the developmental education program. Next, a curriculum committee began work on a new developmental mathematics curriculum, which is available here. These changes are slated for implementation in Fall 2011. Dr. Wood also made the point that these changes fit into a larger framework of the student experience, a cycle of “Placement/Diagnostic Instruments --> Content --> Structure --> Instructional Delivery --> Professional Development --> Student Support Services Assessment --> Placement/Diagnostic Instruments”.

Next, Jane Serbousek followed with more detail about the proposed DMRT changes. The content of the developmental math courses has been revised to better reflect what is needed to be successful in college. The content has also been reorganized from three five-unit courses, to a series of nine one-unit “modules”. The modules are competency based, and are intended to use a grading system of ABCF instead of SRU (Satisfactory, Reenroll, Unsatisfactory) which is currently employed. She noted that the question of “what constitutes mastery?”, is a difficult one. The intention of this modular framework is that students should only take the modules that are needed, as determined by the placement test, and work to improve their mastery of that topic before moving forward. This also allows for greater differentiation between students. For example, Liberal Arts students would have different developmental math requirements than students in STEM programs.

Part three of the presentation was led by Dr. Donna Jovanovich and discussed the goals of developmental math redesign. The three goals of the DMRT are (1) to reduce the need for developmental education, (2) reduce time to complete developmental education, and (3) to increase number of developmental education students graduating or transferring. Each of these goals has a related measure of success. For example, “reduced need for developmental education” can be measured by placement test scores and “reduced time to complete developmental education” can be measured by student success in developmental classes. One interesting statistic that Dr. Jovanovich mentioned was the following: only 1/3 of developmental math students that don't pass reenroll in the course the following semester, of those, only 1/3 pass the second time, but those that do pass through the developmental program successfully have a 80% of graduating or transferring. So while success rates for the courses are grim, there are long term payoffs for the students who do succeed.

Dr. Wood returned at the end of the session for some closing remarks. The steps for the DMRT program are to have the curriculum approved by the Dean's course committee and to find out how the modularization of developmental math will affect enrollment services and financial aid.

For more information, see the VCCS Developmental Education home page.

# VCCS Reengineering Initiative

The second event I attended was a presentation from VCCS Chancellor, Dr. Glenn DuBois. The Chancellor began with an overview of the goals for the Reengineering Initiative, many of which are spelled out in the Achieve 2015 publication. The goals are to improve access, affordability, student success, workforce and resources. He noted that the VCCS is experiencing an increased number of students that register for classes, and increased number of these students are unprepared, a decrease amount of public funding, along with a call for more public accountability and more college graduates. Currently, about 50% of high school graduates require developmental education and only 25% of them go on to graduate in four years. He made the case that there is bipartisan support for improving the quality of education, using President Obama and Virgina Governor McDonnell as two examples. President Obama has stated that he wants to see 5 million more graduates in the US, while Governor McDonnell has stated that he wants to see 100,000 more graduates in the state of Virginia. This is the heart of the Reengineering Initiative: improving student success with sustainable and scalable solutions. Some of the funding for the Reengineering Initiative has been made possible by Federal funding, as well as the Lumina & Gates foundations.

In order to improve the 25% success rate of developmental education, the Reengineering Initiative is implementing major changes to the developmental math program. First is the opening of different paths for different students. Second is a revised business model which replaces a “test in/test out” philosophy with a diagnostics and short modules intended to improve mastery. To accomplish these goals, the Virginia Community Colleges are moving in a direction of more shared services, in areas such as Financial Aid and distance learning. The VCCS is also looking for ways to help local high schools better prepare students for college, such as making the placement test available to high school students and developing transition courses.

# Best Practices in a Changing Developmental Education Classroom

The last event of the first day was a keynote presentation from textbook author Elayn Martin-Gay. Elayn's first major point was about the importance of “ownership” for both teachers and students, and how language can affect the feeling of “ownership”. For example, instead students' grades being “given”, they should be “earned”. She seemed very positive about the Reengineering Initiative, saying that it was “good to be doing something, even if it's wrong, [so that] you can tweak it and continue”.

She then proceeded into more classroom oriented practices, saying that it was important to monitor student performance and catch students “at the dip”. If a drop in performance can be corrected early, this can prevent the student from getting too far behind. She also talked about the importance of students keeping notes in a “journal”. This encourages good study skills, giving students a source to go to when it comes time for the exam. She suggested that teachers should “learn the beauty of a little bit of silence”. Teachers should not always jump right into a solution to a problem, but that waiting a extra three seconds longer will dramatically increase the number of student responses. She also said that teachers should “raise the bar and expect more from students”, and that “they will rise to meet it”. She recommended that disciplinary problems occurring in the classroom should be taken care of immediately, to maximize time for learning later.

After these classroom practices, she moved into some of the larger social issues affecting developmental education. She noted that the supply of college degrees has gone down, while the demand for experts has gone up. She jokingly called the first year of college “grade 13”, noting that many college freshmen have yet to decide on a long term plan. She cited seven current issues affected new college students: lack of organization, confidence, study skills, attendance, motivation, work ethic, and reading skills. She argued that reading is often the biggest barrier to earning a college degree.

As some ways of addressing these issues, she presented a number of graphs relating college experience with employment and income. She said that she often presents these graphs at the start of the semester as a means of encouragement. She has students covert the statistics from annual income to an hourly wage so that they can more closely relate with the figures. She also included some ideas for asking “deeper” questions in math classes. One of the examples was “Write a linear equation that has 4 as the solution”. The trivial solution to this is “x=4”, then we can build off this to find others “2x=8” and “2x-3 = 5”. She says that students will typically solve these equations step by step each time, by the time she asks students to solve something like “-2(2x-3)/1000 = -10/1000” they start to look for an easier method – realizing deeper properties about equality in the process.

One of the things Elayn said that resonated strongly with me was that “students would rather be in charge of their own failure than take a chance on [asking the teacher]”. As math teachers, the general feeling of the audience was that study skills are not our focus, but as Elayn pointed out, those study skills can have a powerful influence on student success. By providing students with the skills necessary to “learn math”, those students can in turn take charge of their learning experience.

# Next time: VMATYC Day 2

Stay tuned as I collect my notes from Day 2. Day 2 events include: “Online Developmental Math on the Brink: Discussion Panel”, “Developmental Mathematics SIG Roundtable”, and “The Mathematical Mysteries of Music”.