Implementation from Both Sides: A Look into a Joint K-12 and Postsecondary Math Reform

By Kathleen Almy

As a math faculty member at a college for many years, I helped local high schools develop new courses called transitional or transition courses. They often mimicked existing college developmental courses but would also provide the student some benefit with regard to placement in college-level courses. How students earned the placement and where it could be used varied.

When Illinois passed the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act in 2016, it required every high school in the state to create a transitional math course for seniors that aligns with career pathways and addresses students’ college readiness needs. Students who earn a C or better in this course are guaranteed placement into a college-level math course in their pathway at every Illinois community college and any Illinois university that opts in. The reform marries top-down policy and bottom-up implementation by involving teachers throughout the creation of the new courses.

I left my tenured position as a math professor in 2017 to lead Illinois’s transitional math course reform, working with policymakers, administrators, and teachers throughout the state for two years. I then transitioned to working on my consulting business full-time, engaging in a variety of projects with high schools and colleges, including the implementation of transitional math courses. Working on the other side of the reform, enacting the policies I helped craft, has been an eye-opening experience.

The main obstacles that arise with reforms that cross educational levels are related to communication and trust. Educational institutions, by their very nature, tend to be siloed. Often, faculty and administrators, the postsecondary and secondary education levels, and educational agencies for these levels work separately. There is a lot of work to be done in each of these spheres, let alone across levels. But the siloing is one of the main reasons Illinois’s transitional math course reform became necessary. High schools and colleges don’t communicate enough about their experiences, expectations, or challenges. Both sides have more in common than they often realize, but creating the time and trust to get a conversation started is incredibly difficult.

But we did it anyway. Through meeting after meeting—face-to-face and online, through emails, webinars, you name it—we found ways to get together, discuss, debate, and decide. Side conversations and grumbling were not uncommon; such things are to be expected. But we made progress, and the scale of implementation started to grow. By 2022, all 700 high schools in the state will have a transitional math course; hundreds are already offering or planning one.

Getting to this point feels like an accomplishment, and it is. But the story is different when you look at the implementation process from the other side, at the high school level. Problems were widespread. The free curricular resources we curated were not fully tested. Compliance requirements were unclear. Not enough professional development was available. Not counting the courses for graduation credit was an obstacle to enrollment. From my perspective at the state, I knew there would be challenges, but I thought we provided enough support to navigate them. Once I started helping schools, I quickly learned that wasn’t the case.

Nonetheless, schools are resourceful and are finding ways to collaborate to solve problems. I’m working with schools to offer professional development, online discussion boards, and other resources for teachers, counselors, and administrators. The state is working to create more resources and training opportunities. College and high school faculty and staff are talking to each other more than they have in years. Many students are getting a new experience in math and earning placement in college-level courses. A lot of victories are happening, but they are hard-fought.

We’ve certainly not solved all of the world’s remediation issues with this initiative. But as a state, we have made progress. Reforms like this are hard, but the end result of having students in the right class at the right time, so they are more likely to reach their goals, is worth it. Everyone tends to get caught in their own viewpoint, me included, but if we step back and take a breath, we can refocus on what really matters: students. With them in mind, change and progress are possible.

Kathleen Almy is a consultant for Almy Educational Consulting and previously served as Illinois’s director for transitional math.