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Advancing Mathematics Pathways: What it Takes and What is Next

September 1, 2021|By William E. "Brit" Kirwan

The Launch Years Initiative hosted a policy forum in 2021 on how state, K–12, and postsecondary leaders can design and implement policies consistent with the recommendations proposed in the Launch Years report. The forum provided a powerful case for the critical role that state and postsecondary policy leaders—and community voices representing the perspectives of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), and other minoritized communities—must play to ensure that mathematics is seen as a vehicle for achieving greater educational equity, rather than as a barrier to it.

This is part of a blog series inspired by that forum. 

I've spent most of my adult life trying to convince legislators to make policy changes that would benefit education. I have devoted countless hours to meeting with committee chairs, walking the halls of the state Capitol, and working with institutional leaders and faculty to build support for meaningful higher education reform. 

These efforts taught me that in order to get an agenda adopted, it is critical to connect desired reforms to larger state goals and to the priorities of legislative leadership. In the case of math pathways, this should not be difficult to accomplish. As Uri Treisman has said regarding the mathematics students need today, “There has likely never been a moment where quantitative decision-making, quantitative capabilities, and quantitative acumen were more important.” 

Policy change is a marathon, not a sprint

To get policy adopted, it is important to understand how legislation is created. You might be surprised to know that although there are hundreds of people in state legislatures, there are relatively few who will determine whether a policy reform will be enacted. 

As a result, you need to know who the leaders are, what their agenda is, and what process you will need to gain their support. Reaching these leaders won’t likely happen after one conversation, one hearing, or even during a single legislative session. To accomplish significant education reform, you must be prepared to play the long game.

Coalition building is key

To get the attention of policy leaders, it is very important to build coalitions of key stakeholders and organizations and to ensure the coalitions include members who live in the districts of key decision makers. Building a strong coalition will demonstrate that you are not speaking out of self-interest, but rather are representing broader community interests. A statewide coalition is especially important for adopting a comprehensive reform like math pathways. The need to create math pathways that are aligned across postsecondary institutions and that apply to various programs of study is critical to facilitating effective student transfer and degree completion. 

To make a change of this magnitude, it is important to build a coalition through both grassroots and grasstops efforts. We need community, institutional, and policy leaders—the “grass tops”—to be committed, but we also need grassroots advocates. The grasstop leaders can build the agenda for systemic change. The grassroots leaders develop the specifics for how to implement the change. 

To achieve meaningful systemic reform, leaders must use their convening power to bring the grassroots and grasstops together to initiate the change process.

Building a grassroots and grasstops coalition in Maryland 

One example for facilitating a grassroots and grasstops strategy that I was fortunate to help lead when I was Chancellor of the University of Maryland system was the development and adoption of a statewide multiple pathway structure in mathematics education. My first step was to bring the need for math pathways to the attention of the presidents of the institutions within the University of System of Maryland, which represents all the public four-year institutions in the state. I then met with the community college presidents to make the case for reform. 

Then, using the convening power that a chancellor has, I organized a day-long statewide convening of all the provosts and the math chairs of the state’s two-year and four-year public institutions. Uri Treisman set the tone for the convening by offering a compelling case for the need to design and implement math pathways. Following Uri's inspirational words, we facilitated breakout groups that enabled the provosts and faculty leaders to discuss the merits and practicalities of building math pathways in Maryland. When we reconvened at the end of the day, we were able achieve almost unanimous agreement to move forward. 

After the convening, math chairs from two-year and four-year institutions worked together to develop common learning outcomes for an introductory statistics course and a quantitative reasoning course. In addition, the faculty leaders worked to identify which math credits would transfer and meet the general education requirements of Maryland’s four-year institutions. 

Today we have well established math pathways in statistics, quantitative reasoning, and precalculus across the state of Maryland. It could not have happened without the capacity of the leadership to convene all stakeholders. But it also could not have happened without the input and commitment of math department chairs to design the learning outcomes and ensure the applicability of credits into programs of study at all University System of Maryland institutions.

Advancing America’s math pathways work 

Many states have made tremendous progress toward the design, scale, and implementation of math pathways– but the work is not done.

We need to continue the work to ensure that the math pathways that have been implemented are generating equitable outcomes, particularly for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students. We also need to continue to encourage states and systems that have not built math pathways to do so. Thanks to the work of the Dana Center and of postsecondary leaders and math faculty in states like Maryland, we know how to do this work – it is now time to double down on our efforts across the nation.

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About the Author

William E. "Brit" Kirwan

William E. “Brit” Kirwan is chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland (USM) and a recognized authority on higher education. He served as chancellor of USM (2002–2015), president of the Ohio State University (1998–2002), and president of the University of Maryland, College Park (1988–1998). Kirwan chairs the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences and serves as executive director of Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics.