Effective Basic Skills Instruction: The Case for Contextualized Developmental Math

Year of publication: 
February 2011
Policy Analysis for California Education

A new PACE policy brief by W. Charles Wiseley, CTE Specialist at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, examines both the scarcity and the effectiveness of contextualized developmental math in the 110 public California Community Colleges (CCC) during the 2006-2007 academic year.

Recent research on students entering California community colleges found that less than one in ten students who enter at the basic arithmetic or pre-algebra math level successfully complete college-level math. Students entering at the next higher level of math (elementary algebra) are only slightly more likely to succeed in college-level math. Yet, college-level math skills are required for success in nearly all college programs including most occupationally-focused certificate programs. Overall, fewer than 20 percent of remedial math students who do not complete a college level math course earn a certificate, degree, or transfer to a four-year university within six years. Beginning in 2006, California community colleges, through changes in regulations designed to strengthen the core curriculum for the associate degree began to eliminate many occupationally-focused and “contextualized” math courses such as “Business Math” and “Technical Math for Airframe Mechanics.” These integrated courses often focus on the mathematics required in specific occupations, starting with basic arithmetic or pre-algebra and progressing into intermediate algebra topics, and have significantly higher success rates than traditional math courses. Unfortunately, the pressure for traditional academic courses has eliminated many of these contextualized courses, as they no longer meet the requirements for the associate degree. But the low success rates that are common in remedial math courses in the academic model mean that few students will be able to acquire the occupational skills necessary to complete an advanced occupational course, certificate, or degree.


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