Math Emerges as Big Hurdle for Teenagers

By Debra Viadero — March 22, 2005 7 min read
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Researchers from the United Negro College Fund went to West Virginia last year and asked 62 high school dropouts in the federal Job Corps program a simple, open-ended question. “What was it about school,” they wanted to know, “that caused you to quit?”

With surprising consistency, a majority of the participants, most of whom were African-American or Hispanic, gave the same answer: “Math.”

Though the results are not scientific, they point to a challenge that confronts policymakers and educators as they campaign to make American high schools more academically rigorous. Experts agree that if the goal is for all students to graduate from high school ready for college or other postsecondary study, schools have their work cut out for them, at least in mathematics.

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Chart: The Math Achievement Gap

The challenge may be particularly daunting, these experts add, when it comes to the kinds of students drawn to training programs like the Job Corps—students who are members of minority groups or those who fall at the lower end of the academic-achievement scale. Yet, they note, the emphasis at the federal level so far has primarily been on improving reading.

“I think, fundamentally, we’re going to find math is more critical than we might have thought it was,” said M. Christopher Brown II, the director of social justice and professional development for the American Educational Research Association, based in Washington. Mr. Brown spearheaded the not-yet-published West Virginia study when he was the director of the United Negro College Fund’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute in Fairfax, Va.

Architects of the push for transforming high schools don’t disagree that the task they face is particularly great in math. But, they add, it’s not a reason to hold back on efforts to ratchet up academic content in high school math classes.

“The problem is this: We have lots of kids coming into high schools who are not yet ready to take rigorous math coursework,” said Michael Cohen, the president of the Washington-based nonprofit group Achieve. Along with President Bush and the nation’s governors, Achieve is calling for improving high schools.

“At the same time,” Mr. Cohen added, “we have to give the kids who are still in high school better than they have now. We just can’t afford to wait until better-prepared students come through the pipeline.”

In the study conducted by the United Negro College Fund, dropouts in the Job Corps who ranged in age from 16 to their mid-20s cited a variety of reasons for their lack of success with high school math. They talked about getting “pushed along” in school despite not having mastered the subject, having poor-quality textbooks, feeling bored, and being taught math by athletic coaches or by teachers whom they considered not “smart.”

Passing Along

“They basically pass students along,” agreed Crystal Collett, 18, a student at Kansas City Community College in Kansas City, Kan. Although she was not part of the West Virginia study, she found herself taking remedial math upon entering community college.

“In high school, my algebra teacher would give us an assignment and tell us to do the homework,” Ms. Collett recalled in a telephone interview. “The next day, she would give answers on the overhead. I never understood how she did it, and she didn’t show us.”

National statistics bear out observations that high school math is a struggle for many students—not just those who are low-achieving or disadvantaged in some way.

On the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress test in math, 17 percent of high school seniors scored at the “proficient” level—just under half the percentage scoring at that level on the NAEP reading test. Twenty-two percent of college freshmen, like Ms. Collett, are identified as needing remedial math, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But the climb to college-level math could be hardest on minority students, many of whom attend schools with fewer resources, less experienced teachers, and more teachers teaching subjects for which they were not trained. Many African-American students are disproportionately assigned to lower-level math classes in high school, sometimes even when they have the grades to do better.

On 12th grade NAEP math tests given in 2000, black and white students were separated by a gap of 34 scale-score points—about the same as in 1990. (Among younger students, mathematics differences on NAEP tests narrowed slightly between black and white students over roughly the same period.)

“It doesn’t matter whether they’re male or female, African-American students do tend to experience mathematics in school in a qualitatively different way than other folks,” said Danny Bernard Martin, an associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The “algebra for all” movement begun in the 1990s is a case in point, he said. Prompted by studies showing that algebra was a “gatekeeper” course that paved the way for students to take higher-level math and go on to college, many districts began requiring students to take a first-level algebra course by 8th or 9th grade.

“But ‘algebra’ is not algebra in every location,” Mr. Martin said, noting that many pupils got watered-down versions of the subject. “For many students of color, they may have taken the math requested, and then tried to enter college and tried to enter the workforce and found out they were not prepared.”

“If the country’s serious about this on the mathematics side,” said Robert P. Moses, the civil rights leader who founded the Cambridge, Mass.-based Algebra Project, “it will have to do something very different than it’s doing now.”

What It Takes

Experts agree that, at a minimum, the United States will have to improve preparation for math teachers at all levels if all students are to be held accountable for reaching higher levels of achievement.

Research is less definitive on what makes for good math instruction at the high school level, particularly for lower-achieving students. Indeed, federal education officials say, the reason the Bush administration has emphasized reading instruction up until now is that research in that subject is further along than studies on math instruction.

The enduring “math wars” are evidence that math educators and mathematicians remain divided, even in their own communities, on the proper focus of math study and how it should be taught.

But the wrong way to go about improving minority students’ math achievement, according to Mr. Moses, is to expand federal testing requirements in high school, as President Bush has proposed for schools taking part in the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students.

Mr. Moses’ fear is that preparing students for such tests leaves little time for them to delve into the deeper concepts that can engage them intellectually.

That view is not shared by all groups working toward educational equity. The Washington-based Education Trust, for one, supports the heavy emphasis on testing embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act—in part because it holds schools accountable for raising the test scores of specific subgroups of children, such as African-Americans and Hispanics.

In a report released last fall, the research and advocacy group credited the 3-year-old law with having narrowed math achievement gaps between elementary students in 17 of the 21 states for which its researchers could collect data. (“Report: States See Test-Score Gains,” Oct. 20, 2004.)

Mr. Moses’ own efforts to improve math education through the Algebra Project have been unusually intense.

At Lanier High School in Jackson, Miss., a predominantly black, mostly poor school with which Mr. Moses works, students who take part in his program have to agree to take 90 minutes of math instruction five days a week, which is the equivalent of two math courses a year.

Teachers in the project, most of whom follow the same group of students through high school, have common planning periods and teach no more than 70 students a day. The result so far, Mr. Moses said, is that he now has 46 juniors and seniors who have stuck with the program, some of them since 8th grade, and most of whom, he hopes, will be able to enter college without taking remedial math.

But Mr. Moses and the University of Illinois’ Mr. Martin say that educators also will have to address cultural issues as they try to nudge more minority students into higher-level math courses. Researcher Jacqueline Leonard of Temple University in Philadelphia, for example, integrates math lessons into church Sunday school classes in her community.

“Some of it has to do with the expectations students have about who is supposed to do well in math,” Mr. Martin said.

Mr. Moses deploys “math-literacy workers”—college-age students who were once students in the Algebra Project—as role models in middle and high schools.

“What they could do that I couldn’t do is make it cool to do math,” Mr. Moses said.

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