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Narrowing the Racial Achievement Gap in Math

 

Q. What's being done to help encourage more black and Latino students to excel in "gatekeeper" math and science classes, like algebra and biology? Don't they need extra help to gain the confidence and skills to take higher-level, college-prep math and science and aim their career sights higher?

 

There's lots to be proud of, although of course there's a long, long way to go before students of all races are on an equal footing when it comes to math literacy.

 

Findings by the Comprehensive Partnerships for Mathematics and Science Achievement, a project of the National Science Foundation, revealed that in many urban school districts, only a small fraction of black high-school students complete algebra, and only about one-sixth as many minority graduates as white graduates pass physics, biology or chemistry.

 

But things are getting better. Consider these success stories:

 

n       Several years ago, the Providence, R.I., schools began requiring that all students take higher-level mathematics as part of the College Board's Equity 2000 initiative. Result: 97% of Latino and African-American students there take algebra, compared with only 37% of black students and 27% of Hispanic students in 1991. (Article, "Achievement Gap Widening, Study Reports," Education Week, Dec. 4, 1996)

 

n       California math teacher Jaime Escalante became famous as the movie, "Stand and Deliver," chronicled his success in teaching Advanced Placement calculus to inner-city Los Angeles teens in a high school known for its drugs, gangs and dropout rate. His method: no-nonsense, tough teaching. So many of his students passed the rigorous A.P. exams for college credit that Escalante was investigated for cheating - and, of course, exonerated. Unfortunately, he has now retired, but teachers nationwide take strength from his amazing success.

 

n       Individual effort by master teachers appears to be the key in several low-income, minority high schools with high math achievement, where it's cool to be smart - something that's rare in many inner-city schools. Take Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District of Columbia: 94% black . . . too few textbooks, calculators and computers . . . too many substitute teachers and underqualified staff . . . a profound lack of fundamental skills in high school students because of less-than-adequate grade school math preparation. But enter teacher John Mahoney, a 29-year teaching veteran, who came from the prestigious Sidwell Friends School and took a major cut in pay because he wanted to make a difference for kids who really, really needed it. And have they ever: they're passing the Advanced Placement statistics test and achieving in upper-level science as never before, because of his encouragement.

 

In an article in USA Today on Aug. 10, 2005, Mahoney said his methods are simple: small classes, a handbell to keep order instead of yelling and getting mad, a lack of coddling, and most of all a patient willingness to explain things over and over and over.

 

Mahoney also has instilled pride with a display in the school lobby about the work of Benjamin Banneker, the black mathematician and scientist who helped survey D.C., and gave the school its name, plus articles in math journals, and tireless efforts in obtaining grants for extras.

 

Yes, he's making less money than at the prestigious college-prep school . . . but he says he's happier because he's making a bigger difference.

 

Homework: One of the most exciting projects in the country focusing on raising math achievement among children of color and those in poverty is The Algebra Project, featuring civil rights activist Robert Moses. Read more about it on www.algebra.org

 

By Susan Darst Williams www.ShowandTellforParents.com Math 11 2008

 

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