Mathematics and Equity: The Transformation of a “Middle Leader” in the CSU

Thad Nodine HeadshotBy Thad Nodine, Senior Fellow, EdInsights

This is the fourth in a series of blogs by the CSU Student Success Network to share information about efforts to eliminate equity gaps in the CSU.

October 2019

David Zeigler, Chair, Mathematics/Statistics Department, Sacramento State

Since David Zeigler became chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Sacramento State University in fall 2015, he shepherded the department through a major transformation in how it supports incoming students in math. The department changed its assessment for incoming students, revamped its introductory courses in math and statistics, and began providing student supports that were aligned with instruction—all of which are better adapted to the needs of incoming students, compared with the previous policies, which had been in place for 25 years.

“We had a very draconian system,” Zeigler said. “It was not friendly at all to students. The tragic story is that it was our system and so I supported it.”

Zeigler’s “enlightenment,” as he called it, came about through a series of professional development experiences, research, and conversations with peers. As a math professor, Zeigler had participated in many national and international conferences focused on mathematics. When he became chair, he began to attend cross-disciplinary gatherings associated with teaching and learning generally, including a multi-day workshop in Washington, D.C., on developmental education. He also brought a team from Sacramento State to the Middle Leadership Academy, a year-long professional learning program run by the CSU Student Success Network.

“We had a very draconian system,” Zeigler said. “It was not friendly at all to students. The tragic story is that it was our system and so I supported it.”

The workshop in Washington, D.C., introduced him to a broader perspective about remedial education policies, including their impacts on students of color and on students generally. He said, “In our department, we were saying things we felt to be true: ‘We want the best for our students. We want to help them reach high standards.’ But we had a narrow view of that. I started reading the broader literature.” Other institutions were already using alternatives to placement testing and changing the content and pedagogy of their introductory classes. And they were getting better results.

“I looked at what other states were doing,” he said, “and I wondered, why can’t we do that? That prompted me to start a discussion among my peers in the math department.” This was before the CSU Chancellor’s Office released Executive Orders 1100 and 1110, which transformed systemwide policies for general education requirements and for math and writing placement.

As a department chair, Zeigler might be considered a prototypical “middle leader,” which the CSU Network defines as faculty, staff, and administrators who are in positions of influence on campus and who also tend to have some contacts with students. Middle leaders are likely to remain at their institutions for years and to have extensive relationships and networks on campus. Most of these leaders see themselves as focused on their discipline or area of service, rather than as responsible for institutional policies. Most have not had training in change management, communications, or leadership, and yet many have experience negotiating complex education reforms.

When Zeigler became chair, there were two diagnostic math tests given to incoming students at Sacramento State. Entry-Level Math (ELM) was a systemwide, high-stakes, one-time assessment. Those who did not make the cut-off score were offered remedial courses taught by a different set of faculty—in the College of Education, not the math department. These remedial courses did not count toward graduation, and passing them did not serve as a prerequisite for entry-level courses in math. Those who scored high enough on the ELM upon entry, as well as those who passed the remedial courses in the College of Education, had to take a different assessment required by the math department. If they did not meet that cut-off score, they were offered a second series of remedial courses offered by the math department—taught in an emporium model (a math lab with a teaching assistant) or a lecture model (a sage at the stage).

Zeigler said that the assessment policies and program structure “basically laid down a line [for students] and said, ‘If you get over that line you can come in and we’ll help you. The rest of you need to go away and figure it out.’ We thought we got to choose who’s ready to work with us. But students are pretty resourceful and resilient. If we tell them, ‘This is the bar,’ they’ll work for that bar. They just need to know what the target is and get some support from us in getting there.”

The math department began its transformation in spring 2015, when the administration of Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen informed the department that a large share of incoming students would be exempted from taking math remediation in the education department, effectively giving the department a one year head start to work with placing students. In response, the math department opened up additional sessions of its remedial courses in fall 2017 and made minor changes otherwise.

“We were surprised,” Zeigler said, “by how well the students did considering the minimal changes we made.”

It was also in fall 2017 that Zeigler brought his team from Sacramento State—including math faculty, student services staff, and others—to the CSU Network’s Middle Leadership Academy. Throughout that year, the Academy focused on helping math faculty and other middle leaders across the CSU transform their math assessment policies and course structures for incoming students, in line with the changes required by Executive Orders 1100 and 1110.

“We were surprised,” Zeigler said, “by how well the students did considering the minimal changes we made.”

“The Middle Leadership Academy, the networking, all that was important in helping us figure out what steps to take,” Zeigler said. “At the meetings, we discussed with other teams how things were working on their campus, and how they were interacting with faculty and administration to get things done.”

At Sacramento State, the math department now offers several course options for incoming students, all of which count toward graduation. In addition to STAT 1, the original introductory statistics course, the department offers the following.

  • STAT 10A and 10B is a two-semester statistics course that is linked with supplemental instructional supports. Any student can enroll (no assessment needed). The course satisfies the general education (GE) requirement for math.
  • MATH 1 is a quantitative reasoning course that lasts one semester and is paired with supplemental instruction. Any student can enroll (no assessment needed) and it satisfies the GE requirement for math.
  • MATH 10 and MATH 12 are college algebra courses (for non-STEM and STEM majors, respectively). These are semester-long courses, with aligned supplemental instruction. They serve as prerequisites for other math courses, but they do not satisfy the GE requirement for math.

The department also changed its assessment to an online test (ALEKS PPL), which students can retake multiple times and which provides students with online learning modules for material they have not yet mastered. “What we’re finding is that the cut scores don’t matter so much, except for very low scores,” Zeigler said. “What matters is the review that students can do, based on how they performed on the test.” He said the department is now in the process of considering multiple measures for placing students in its math courses.

Zeigler credited President Nelsen for pressing the department to examine and improve its policies. He pointed to support from many math colleagues and from across Sacramento State, including the Division of Student Affairs. He also described three strategies that guided his interactions with colleagues:

  1. Taking responsibility for students. “The approach I had was not that the Chancellor wants us to do this. It was: ‘Let’s be the good guy for a change and give these students what they need and send them on their way.’”
  2. Appealing to faculty interests. “Giving people relief time helped. Several professors had been wanting to redesign their courses. This was a chance for them to do that.”
  3. Being patient but persistent. “When faculty put up resistance, I would just go away and then ask again in a week or so. Surprisingly, that often worked. It gave people time.”

It’s too early to know the full effects of the changes, but for MATH 10 offered in fall 2018, the share of students receiving a D, F or withdrawal (DFW) was seven percent. “That’s great,” Zeigler said, “particularly considering all the changes we made.” Student outcomes for a similar course in previous years are not comparable for several reasons, including that the previous course was not for credit.

Zeigler is now examining which students did not pass MATH 10 in fall 2018 and how the department can support them better. “Now that we have a full year of data,” he said, “we can make one comparison regarding the effect of the changes. In the older system, approximately half of the students who started in the lowest developmental math course made it to a college credit bearing course. Once in the credit bearing class, the DFW rate was around 30%. In the current system, over 80% are earning credit in math.”

In the meantime, his suggestion for other math departments? “Put more faith in students and focus on providing them with the tools they need to succeed.”

The Middle Leadership Academy is led by Dr. Bianca Mothé, a professor at CSU San Marcos. During 2018-19 and 2019-20, the Academy is focusing on supporting CSU campus teams in eliminating equity gaps. To receive information about the Academy or other activities by the CSU Student Success Network, please email The Network is facilitated by EdInsights at Sacramento State.