Students' success in mathematics at community colleges has been the subject of thorough quantitative research, which has reported poor overall results and described a range of explanations for them. Even as policies, course formats, and the composition of the student population have changed, success rates have remained dishearteningly low. The challenges confronted by community college students in developmental and higher-level math classes are historical, financial, social, and personal. Brian Cafarella's new book, which examines these challenges through the perspectives of the students themselves, is a welcome contribution to the topic.
Breaking Barriers: Student Success in Community College Mathematics (CRC Press, 2021) is a qualitative study of the barriers faced, and the paths blazed through them, by more than 20 community college students who required developmental math at the starts of their programs and successfully completed college-level courses. From his interviews and exchanges with these students, Dr. Cafarella synthesizes several key themes, from the demoralizing impact of high school experiences to the urgent effects of family and work pressures, and indeed students' own attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyles. I was especially struck by the students' diverse responses to the diverse class modalities their colleges offered, and by the extent of personal support these institutions mustered to see the students through bleak periods.
The book concludes with several core lessons distilled from the study, most of which came through in some form during our discussion but provide an excellent point of reference for decision-makers—including present and prospective students. I hope that teachers, administrators, and especially policymakers will also be able to put these lessons to good use, and that they will help drive a continuing effort to understand and chart pathways through the barriers students face.
Suggested companion works: journal articles on community college mathematics by
Brian Cafarella is a mathematics professor at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. He has taught a variety of courses ranging from developmental math through pre-calculus, and he has published articles in several peer-reviewed journals on implementing best practices in developmental math and various math pathways for community college students. Brian is a past recipient of the Roueche Award for teaching excellence, the Ohio Magazine Award for excellence in education, and the Article of the Year Award from the Journal of Developmental Education.
Cory Brunson is an Assistant Professor at the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida. His research focuses on geometric and topological approaches to the analysis of medical and healthcare data.