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Why Aren't More African-American Students Taking Advanced Math?

Contrary to persistent myth, it's not that African-American students (AAS) lack interest in math or don't have high educational aspirations. In fact, several studies document that African American students sometimes have more positive attitudes toward mathematics and higher educational aspirations than do their white counterparts, especially in the early years of secondary school. Yet AAS are less likely than Asian American and white students to complete advanced high school mathematics classes that are crucial prerequisites for admission to competitive colleges and for career success. Although schools have achieved greater parity for some college-preparatory courses—algebra and geometry, for example—there are still ethnicity-related gaps in enrollments in courses like trigonometry and calculus. These gaps have profound implications for students' achievement. One study found that, after controlling for demographic factors, one-third of the achievement gap in mathematics was due to course-taking differences.


Despite the curricular reforms of the 1980s, the “algebra for all” movements of the 1990s, and the advent of No Child Left Behind in the 2000s, there is still great variability in opportunities to learn higher mathematics in schools across the United States. Students attending predominantly minority schools still receive fewer opportunities to learn rigorous mathematics. Instead of sometimes impeding student progress, how can teachers and schools support AAS in high-level mathematics? I present here six suggestions from my over 10+ years of experience tutoring hundreds of AAS in all mathematic topics—three that focus on necessary shifts in educators' attitudes and three that focus on curricular shifts—that can help foster improved math achievement for underrepresented students.

Expand AAS Thinking about Who Can Do Mathematics

Too often, African-American students' opportunities are limited because of others' perceptions of their ability to do advance mathematics. School and teacher practices that hold AAS back from doing advanced mathematics abound (Walker, 2003). Some schools offer limited numbers of high-level mathematics courses, thus restricting the number of AAS who can enroll. Teachers may not recommend AAS for advanced classes for inappropriate reasons. For example, in the majority of New York City public schools serving large percentages of AAS, with many exceptional students are not encourage to take higher level math courses such as AP Calculus, AP Algebra, AP Statistics or Trigonometry. Teachers in these schools (especially in high school) justified there decision of not recommending exceptional AAS by saying, “AAS need to remain in the general-level course because they make good role model for other students in this predominantly African-American class.”

Build on AAS' Existing Academic Communities

As a sought after tutor/education strategist in New York City, I find most teachers and school administrators in predominately African-American schools perception of AAS are largely negative. Instead of assuming that AAS' peers and communities do not support their mathematical achievement, teachers should tap into the supportive networks that many minority students actually possess (Walker, 2006). In a recent study, I interviewed 41 African American high math achievers at The Brooklyn Academy of Global Finance High School in New York City, which is a majority-minority, high-poverty school. I asked them, among other questions, Who or what contributes to your success in math? Their answers and anecdotes revealed that they had extensive networks of teachers, peers, parents, and siblings who supported their math achievement The dominant discourse about under-represented AAS and mathematics achievement focuses largely on deficiencies and overlooks evidence of academic excellence within this population—as well as evidence from schools that promote high achievement among these students. Studies of such schools and classrooms (such as Gutierrez, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1997) note that they are characterized by meaningful relationships between 1) teachers and students, 2) high expectations by teachers, and 3) rigorous curriculums. To create more sites of math excellence for underserved AAS, I believe educators should look to the success stories. Too often, schools serving large populations of AAS emphasize “slowing down” or providing less mathematics content, rather than providing more challenging content.

Expand the Options in School Mathematics Courses

The unvarying nature of school mathematics in the United States—the repetition of elementary coursework and the rigid hierarchy of secondary mathematics courses— dampens interest in mathematics for many students, not just AAS. Math enjoyment decreases with the years: In 1996, 69 percent of U.S. 4th graders reported liking mathematics, whereas only 50 percent of 12th graders did so (Strutchens & Silver, 2000). I think in order to ensure that elementary students get the foundational skills they need while also exposing them to interesting mathematics problems linked to life experiences—problems that tap creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. In high school, the traditional college-preparatory course sequence (Algebra I–Geometry–Algebra II– Trigonometry–Pre-calculus–Calculus) could also include statistics, number theory, the history of mathematics, or other rigorous topics. Such topics—and exploration of how mathematics relates to other disciplines—expand students' understanding of what mathematics is and pique their interest in pursuing it.

Expand Enrichment Opportunities

Many people in the United States often believe that only a few individuals can do advanced mathematics. This reflects the lack of opportunity many of us had as children to do mathematics activities outside classrooms. Young people should experience mathematics in more out-of-classroom situations. Schools can form math quiz teams, certainly, but they can also create engineering, gaming technology, or graphic arts clubs. Teachers should promote family involvement in mathematics activities, just as they promote family reading in children's early years.

Reduce Students' Isolation

Several researchers (for example, Boaler, 2002) have explored “mathematics identity” and how school and classroom dynamics affect students' math engagement. AAS may feel isolated in advanced math classes in predominantly white settings, and this isolation can have a negative effect on their persistence and retention (Walker & McCoy, 1997). Because 35 to 40 percent of African-American students attending predominantly white schools (Goldsmith, 2004), schools should organize classes so that a critical mass of underserved students can take advanced math courses together. We must ensure that AAS develop a diverse peer network that supports their mathematics achievement.

These suggestions above do not mitigate the need to provide increased resources to schools serving large numbers of underserved African-American students. But they provide direction for what we can do now. We are overlooking innumerable chances to develop excellence in math achievement among African-American students. We know that building on students' positive perceptions of mathematics while providing rich opportunities to do mathematics in and out of school can increase the numbers of AAS demonstrating such excellence.
MFEnrique May 20, 2013 at 12:26 AM
Chris Rock said it best, African Americans are shown more 'love' for doing a 'bid' and getting out of prison than to graduate school with a degree. When this 'hood mentality' starts to change, then you will see more than a trickle of AA passing advanced math courses.

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