Math Pathways and the College Completion Agenda

by Eboni M. Zamani-Gallaher / Aug 29, 2017

The middle grades and teen years can feel like a time of storm and stress. I clearly remember sixth grade as a year of sweeping change. From the onset of puberty and my first schoolyard crush, to becoming an everyday latchkey kid and diehard fan of the boy band New Edition. That academic year was marked by many transitions and one other shift was my attitude toward mathematics. I don’t recall disliking math prior to 6th grade. However, I distinctly recall beginning to loathe math at that point. In retrospect, this is quite curious to me as I felt a sense of belonging at Holy Angels School, a predominately Black Catholic school on Chicago’s south side. I had teachers that provided challenge coupled with care, employed culturally relevant pedagogies, and had high expectancies for both boys and girls across the curriculum. My school environment mirrored my home environment as both had a high bar relative to expectations. Hence, I have always held myself to high expectations and offer excellence not excuses. So while the context of my school and math classroom was fine, when I encountered difficulty in math, I became disinterested and disengaged.

I like many other learners can attest to the association between student interests and achievement. How do we make sure students interest in math can be sustained, spark student success, and influence their choice to embark on STEM pathways? Of particular concern for me is how do we increase the success of underrepresented racial and ethnic minority students (URMs) and females in STEM? The middle grades are a critical time for engaging and sustaining girls’ interests and success in mathematics. Additionally, middle school/junior high is when many students begin to consider college and career pathways, pondering what they want to be when they grow up. More often than not, if students dislike math, they have had unsuccessful experiences which affect them beyond a course (e.g., prone to avoid programs of study that require mathematics) (Boaler & Sengupta-Irving, 2016). Yet, even when students are not interested in a subject or have low self-efficacy in an area all is not forsaken.

Recent research by Booker and Lim (2016) explored the experiences of African American middle school girls and their White teachers suggested use of authentic pedagogy (e.g., culturally responsive teaching practices) as well as having a personal connection with their teachers influence how relevant students consider mathematics and their subsequent achievement in middle and secondary mathematics classes. Part of students' image of math is constructed by experiences with mathematics. Given the changing demographics, there is growing concern that students of color have positive experiences and have culturally competent math teachers.  

Years ago, I came across an article that really resonated with me. In her article The Path to Math: Gender and Racial-Ethnic Differences in Mathematics Participation from Middle School to High School, Sophia Catsambis (1994) examined gender differences for African American, Latino(a), and White students learning opportunities, achievement and choice in math among a nationally representative sample of 8th graders that were surveyed again in 10th grade. Catsambis found that girls’ did not lag behind boys in test scores and grades. White girls were found to have more learning opportunities than others student groups and across racial/ethnic groups girls were less interested in math and had less confidence in their mathematics abilities. It has been over 20 years since I read this article and it stuck with me because I recognized myself in terms of knowledge, skills, and disposition toward math. I was a girl expected to excel, that was accustomed to performing well and feeling efficacious in my academic pursuits. It wasn’t a love-hate relationship with math, it was a one-sided -- I hated mathematics. It wasn’t until my college years when I reframed my thinking and moved my psyche from perceived failure to my fuel for getting to my end goal...a doctorate.     

Between the middle years and the collegiate years, we often lose the interest of many talented teens and young adults in math. Perhaps part of the waning interest in mathematics helps explain how so many young people have academic underpreparedness in math. What exactly are the detours to college readiness in mathematics? There are as many as 6 out of 10 high school seniors requiring math remediation upon college entry and only half who take remedial math classes complete them while the other half needing remediation opt out completely (Chen, 2016; Logue, Watanabe-Rose, & Douglas).  Math can be a gateway or gatekeeper in achieving equitable educational outcomes. As an activist scholar that focuses on educational equity, justice, and excellence, the fact that students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation students and students from racially/ethnically underrepresented groups have a disproportionately higher rate of remediation is quite concerning (Chen, 2016). All told, the crisis of remediation is a pipeline problem, as we cannot fully understand math pathways (e.g., collegiate developmental education to calculus II) without examining why students require remedial coursework first. Rigorous quality math pathways are necessary but so too are alternative pathways to curb the need for remediation. Therefore, it is the burden of both secondary and postsecondary education to create better-aligned pathways that encompass engaging, culturally responsive, equity-minded approaches in mathematics instruction. Partnerships to produce better math pathways can prove fruitful for getting and keeping students, especially those from underserved groups in the pipeline for STEM fields.

Success in math is critical to getting and staying on a STEM pathway. STEM pathways lead to high skill, high demand, high wage career opportunities. Even as racial/ethnic minorities are projected to make up over half of the population by 2050, URMs and women are underrepresented in STEM (Museus, Palmer, Davis, & Maramba, 2011). The percent of URMs persisting to degree completion in STEM fields is substantially lower than that for their White peers. Thirty-six percent of underrepresented racial/ethnic minority students who major in STEM fields as defined by National Science Foundation are at community colleges, which represents the highest percentage among all institutional sectors (Hoffman, Starobin, Laanan, & Rivera, 2010; National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, 2012). The need for STEM degree production is growing as well as a call to action to not just admit diverse students but also have students exit with degrees (Rothwell, 2013). Students that don’t complete college have greater difficulty finding work, remaining employed, earn less and a college degree has increasingly become a requirement for gainful employment (Carnevale, Cheah, & Hanson, 2015). The college completion agenda is in full swing to have 60% of Americans with college credentials by 2025. If we endeavor to reach that end goal, we have much work to do in providing math pathways that engage diverse learners across all tiers of education. Affirming acts to advance all learners in math and in life...well that’s the only thing that adds up.


  • Boaler, J., & Sengupta-Irving, T. (2016). The many colors of algebra: The impact of equity focused teaching upon student learning and engagement. The Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 41, 179-190.
  • Booker, K. C., & Lim, J. H. (2016). Belongingness and pedagogy: Engaging African American girls in middle school mathematics. Youth & Society, 0044118X16652757.
  • Carnevale, A. P., Cheah, B., & Hanson, A. R. (2015). The economic value of college majors. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from
  • Catsambis, S. (1994). The path to math: Gender and racial-ethnic differences in mathematics participation from middle school to high school. Sociology of Education, 199-215.
  • Chen, X. (2016). Remedial coursetaking at US public 2-and 4-year institutions: Scope, experiences, and outcomes. Statistical Analysis Report. NCES 2016-405. National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Hoffman, E., Starobin, S. S., Laanan, F. S., & Rivera, M. (2010). Role of community colleges in STEM education: Thoughts on implications for policy, practice, and future research. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 16(1), 85-96.
  • Logue, A. W., Watanabe-Rose, M., & Douglas, D. (2016). Should students assessed as needing remedial mathematics take college-level quantitative courses instead? A randomized controlled trial. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(3), 578-598.
  • Museus, S. D., Palmer, R. T., Davis, R. J., & Maramba, D. (Eds.). (2011). Racial and ethnic minority student success in STEM education: ASHE Higher Education Report, Volume 36, Number 6. John Wiley & Sons.
  • National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (2012). NPSAS institution sector by race/ethnicity. Washington, DC: National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.
  • Rothwell, J. (2013). The hidden STEM economy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.

For more information on math pathways, developmental math, trends in mathematics and college completion, visit the following: