McCormick: Math is key to Tennessee's 'Drive to 55'

McCormick: Math is key to Tennessee's 'Drive to 55'

December 8th, 2013 by Dr. Kim McCormick in Opinion Columns

This fall, thousands of Tennessee students entered higher education for the first time. After graduating high school with the belief they are ready for the next step, they crossed the threshold into one of our state's college campuses. However, for almost 70 percent of these students, their first classes as a freshman were not in Algebra or Biology, but instead, remedial mathematics.

This presents several problems. First, remedial math courses contain competencies that should have been mastered in high school, requiring students to rehash instruction from the past. Second, because remedial courses do not count towards degree requirements, tuition spent on these courses is not invested in the student's academic progress. Finally, and perhaps most discouraging, research tells us those who enter remedial math courses have a reduced chance of graduating college. In one Tennessee community college students requiring remedial math had only a 5 percent chance of graduation.

Governor Bill Haslam's higher education goal, the "Drive to 55", seeks to dramatically increase the number of Tennesseans with a certificate or degree beyond high school. Research indicates that by 2025, at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will need a post-secondary credential to be competitive in the workforce. The Drive to 55 compels us to reevaluate every facet of how the state educates our residents, including remedial math education.

A few years ago, under the leadership of President Jim Catanzaro, faculty at Chattanooga State began asking a simple question: Instead of waiting for students with math deficits to arrive in higher education, what if we went to our local K-12 schools and offered to deliver remedial math in the senior year? We also rethought how remedial math is taught, replacing lectures with a technology based, self-paced instructional environment. We called this program the Seamless Alignment and Integration of Learning Support, or SAILS, initiative and tested it at four community colleges across the state. The success was dramatic.

Among the 200 SAILS students at Chattanooga State, 83 percent of students completed all remedial math requirements before graduating high school. Those students will enter higher education and progress directly into college math. Additionally, 25 percent of those students went on to also complete the freshman-level college math course before leaving high school. Many students who have spent their whole lives saying "I'm just not good at math" have found out, in this environment, they can succeed.

These possibilities, as well as the imperatives of the Drive to 55 initiative, led Gov. Haslam to launch an expansion of the SAILS program across the state. Over 6,000 Tennessee high school students are in SAILS classrooms this fall, and next year, we hope to expand this program to an even larger group.

If we can provide an opportunity for all incoming freshmen on our campuses to start their college careers on the right track, we'll boost the number of students gaining a degree and entering the workforce ready to thrive. Their success, in college and in career, is at the heart of the Drive to 55 and our state's economic future.

Dr. Kim McCormick is the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs of Chattanooga State Community College.