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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

How to Engage More Students of Color in Math

Many black and Latino youth have informal communities that support their math learning. It's a resource teachers should be aware of—and apply.

How to Engage More Students of Color in Math- thumbnail
As part of my research exploring black mathematicians' formative educational and professional experiences, I asked participants why they had decided to major in math in college. One mathematician responded:
I grew up with [the 1990s television show] A Different World. I was in love with Dwayne Wayne [and I thought] "It's cool that he majored in math." Part of me was like, "I guess that will be OK," because I saw it on TV, so it's not crazy (Walker, 2012, p. 12).

Media Myths

Dwayne Wayne is one of the few representations in television or film of a black person who excelled at mathematics. He was also one of the few popular culture representations of a "math person" (Boaler & Greeno, 2000) who wasn't socially inept or psychologically stunted; his personality and humanity weren't at odds with his mathematical abilities.
In the media, many young people are portrayed as uninterested in school, but portrayals of black and Latino urban students are even more negative; they're rarely shown in ways that highlight their intellectual strengths (Ferguson, 2002; Pimentel, 2010). Such portrayals might contribute to many teachers' low expectations of black and Latino students in subjects like mathematics. Research suggests that some teachers believe that students' cultural backgrounds have a negative impact on their academic behaviors and that socioeconomic status is related to students' motivation, despite evidence to the contrary (Ferguson, 2002; Leonard & Martin, 2013). The emphasis on the achievement gap in math between black or Latino students and others, without a corresponding analysis of the opportunity gap, contributes to these beliefs.

The Reality: Students' Communities Support Achievement

Despite negative media portrayals of black and Latino students' academic abilities, the reality is that, on average, these students have very positive attitudes toward education, school, and mathematics (see, for example, Strutchens, Lubienski, McGraw, & Westbrook, 2004; Walker, 2007). On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 48 percent of black 8th graders and 43 percent of Latino 8th graders reported that they "often" or "always/almost always" found their math work engaging and interesting, compared with 37 percent of their white and 50 percent of their Asian counterparts (Snyder & Dillow, 2013).
But young people subjected to daily messages about their supposed lack of potential and interest in mathematics need support. Many of them gain such support through what I call academic communities—informal networks of parents, extended family members, neighbors, classmates, friends, teachers, and other school adults who encourage, teach, and guide young people in mathematics.
Black and Latino youths' interest in math work makes sense within the larger legacy of achievement orientation in underserved communities. Historically, these communities have placed a tremendously high value on education as a means of social mobility and uplift. A large body of research (for example, Leonard & Martin, 2013; Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003) highlights this heritage and the role of community traditions in extending educational opportunities for these students.
My research has explored the various ways that communities—large and small—contribute to the mathematics success of students from underserved backgrounds. My 2012 study of black and Latino students at an East Harlem high school I'll call Lowell High explored how students navigated the worlds of school, home, and peer culture and the roles these worlds played in students' math achievement. High-achieving black students at this school had complex, informal webs of mathematics support—academic communities—of which their teachers were initially not aware. Academic communities appear to also be at work for postsecondary students (Walker, 2014) and even elementary learners (Alexander & Walker, 2012).
Educators who have a particular view of what it means to do mathematics may be surprised to learn that some members of these networks who didn't have a solid academic background themselves—such as parents who didn't finish high school—promoted mathematics success. Fellow students often inspire, collaborate with, or compete with students who have high achievement in math.

Peer Tutoring Power

In 2005, I developed a peer tutoring model at Lowell High that was based on my own experiences as a high school teacher and tapped into this support system. Lowell—a small, predominantly black and Latino high school serving about 300 students—had experienced low math achievement, and according to its math teachers and principal, it needed to jump-start students' interest in math. The model I developed made clear that black and Latino students' peers and classmates could be assets to their academic work, rather than potential—or actual—hindrances.
This program used existing student networks to improve students' education outcomes and exposed math teachers to these networks. Trained high school students became math tutors, and classroom teachers and preservice teachers in graduate school observed the tutors with their tutees and provided support when necessary. Both tutors and tutees were primarily black and Latino.
Students seeking tutoring could drop in; teachers also encouraged students to come for tutoring sessions. Sessions usually focused on homework and test preparation. In the first month of the program, six tutors worked with an average of 8–10 tutees each week; by the program's end, 10–12 tutors worked with approximately 20 tutees each week.
Participating in this tutoring program strengthened students' math achievement. Students' math grades improved, and pass rates on the state's exams increased. Students who attended more peer-tutoring sessions had higher math grades than students who attended fewer sessions. On average, participants gained eight points between fall and spring terms the year they participated.
My interviews with participants and observations of three-times-a-week tutoring sessions over two academic years also revealed that the high school tutors used new, effective instructional approaches with their peers. Participating in the program also increased teachers' knowledge of mathematics instructional strategies. We found that the effectiveness of tutoring sessions depended on the quality of relationships among tutors, tutees, teachers, and graduate student advisors. Most important, tutoring sessions created a space beyond the traditional classroom for students to do math with their friends. High-achieving students were already drawing on peer networks to do math; the program created room for struggling students to benefit from those networks as well.
Four insights from this peer tutoring experience can help teachers and school leaders develop strong academic communities, and build on existing ones, to support math learning.

Listen and Look

As we planned the peer tutoring program at Lowell, math teachers initially had a difficult time identifying top students who could serve as tutors. So I asked the students. They were able to identify more top students (as verified by math grades and test scores) than teachers did—and also identified peers who were good in math, but not necessarily the best students.
Teachers agreed with students' nominations, but it was striking how long it took them to think of top students. They initially chose quiet straight-A students. Students' nominations gave the teachers a chance to reflect on what it means to be good at math. Students selected peers who were A, B, or C students; were good at explaining homework; and who would provide help, when asked, outside class.
Perhaps educators' notions of who is good at math should be more expansive. I often tell teachers the story of Thomas Fuller, an enslaved contemporary of the better-known Benjamin Banneker. Little is known about Fuller, save that he was an illiterate "arithmetical prodigy" who had scant chance to contribute his talents. His obituary, published in 1790, stated, "Had his opportunities of improvement been equal to those of thousands of his fellow-men [not] even a Newton himself, need [have been ashamed] to acknowledge him a brother in science" (Walker, 2014, p. 70). I ask teachers to think, whenever they walk into classrooms, Are there Fullers here—students who may not exhibit traditional characteristics of successful math students but need an opportunity to show what they know?

Get Out of the Way

Tutoring sessions were held in math teachers' classrooms after school, but I encouraged teachers not to be involved in tutoring itself (only to observe and supervise). It was important that student participants took ownership of the tutoring. This enabled teachers to see their students as knowledgeable about math and as agents for their own learning.
Some teachers and administrators were initially surprised at the demand for the program. Students wanted to move almost immediately from a program that met twice a week to one that met three times. They also wanted the program to operate at other times during the school day. Students hoped to hold peer tutoring sessions during lunch. They proposed a "Math Genius Bar" set up in the cafeteria, to which kids could walk up and get help (inspired by the Apple Store model). To my dismay, administrators, concerned about who would supervise the Math Bar, quashed this idea. When the students proposed locating it in the library, administrators also rejected this idea. Sadly, the students wanted to support their own learning, but administrators—most likely unintentionally—thwarted their plans.

Learn and Adapt

An unintended outcome of the peer tutoring program was that teachers ended up learning themselves. They saw struggling students develop into confident, competent students; they saw tutors develop pedagogical strategies to help their peers without spoon-feeding them. Occasionally, teachers and peer tutors worked together with struggling students, and although the teacher-student hierarchy was sometimes present, in most cases teachers allowed tutors to take the lead. I heard one math student helper admonish the teacher to let a tutee "learn it for himself, and not just copy."
The school's mathematics classrooms had generally been traditional environments in which teachers lectured and students sat silently working on problems. As the peer tutoring program developed, students began to collaborate more in the classroom, discussing their answers and helping one another when they got stuck, instead of waiting for the teacher. Teachers referenced peer tutoring interactions when they explained concepts in class, and they cited peer tutors' analogies and examples. The classroom dynamics began to shift from a teacher-dominant space to one where a mathematics community was developing.

Offer More

As at many urban schools serving low-income youth, the opportunities to learn mathematics at Lowell were sometimes limited. For example, there was no precalculus course offered, despite student interest and its importance for college admissions. Teachers and administrators should reflect critically on their policies and practices to make sure they are expanding students' math opportunities rather than limiting them. Where needed, augment curriculum to include rigorous, engaging mathematics problems and courses.
My research indicated that many black and Latino students are interested in mathematics but have been exposed to a limited kind of math both in and out of school. Extracurricular activities should expose students to math beyond the classroom as well as to mathematics-related fields. Teachers should work hard to tap into students' initial interests and seek to engage them further. Such actions raise teachers' and students' expectations—teachers begin to see underserved students as capable contributors to the mathematics enterprise in class, and students begin to see that math is meaningful and worthwhile.

More Engaged Students of Color in Mathematics

These insights could guide similar efforts to support and develop academic communities for black and Latino students learning math. My model is just one of many initiatives that promote student achievement in math by attending to the social aspects of learning, recognizing that collaboration promotes understanding for many students.
In our efforts to improve mathematics teaching and learning for all students, educators should create and sustain communities that actively engage students' learning. Approaches like peer tutoring will help develop cadres of black and Latino students who have strong mathematics identities, are excited about mathematics, and see themselves (and are seen by others) as talented doers of math.

Alexander, N. N., & Walker, E. N. (2012, April). Urban elementary school students' academic communities in mathematics. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Boaler, J., & Greeno, J. (2000). Identity, agency, and knowing in mathematical worlds. In J. Boaler (Ed.), Multiple perspectives on mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 171–200). Stamford, CT: Ablex.

Ferguson, R. F. (2002). What doesn't meet the eye: Understanding and addressing racial disparities in high-achieving suburban schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Leonard, J., & Martin, D. B. (2013). The brilliance of black children in mathematics. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Perry, T., Steele, C., & Hilliard, A. G. (2003). Young, gifted and black: Promoting high achievement among African American students. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pimentel, C., (2010). Critical race talk in teacher education through movie analysis. Multicultural Education, 17(3), 51–56.

Snyder, T. D., & Dillow, S. A. (2013). Digest of Education Statistics 2012 (NCES 2014-015). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

Strutchens, M., Lubienski, S. T., McGraw, R., & Westbrook, S. K. (2004). NAEP findings regarding race and ethnicity: Students' performance, school experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and family influences. In P. Kloosterman & F. Lester (Eds.), Results and interpretations of the 1990–2000 mathematics assessments of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (pp. 269–305). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Walker, E. N. (2007). Why aren't more minorities taking advanced math?Educational Leadership, 65(3), 48–53.

Walker, E. N. (2012). Building mathematics learning communities: Improving outcomes in urban high schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Walker, E. N. (2014). Beyond Banneker: Black mathematicians and the paths to excellence. Albany: State University of New York Press.

End Notes

1 For details about the design and organization of this tutoring program, see my book Building Mathematics Learning Communities: Improving Outcomes in Urban High Schools (Teachers College Press, 2012).

2 For a detailed discussion of Banneker and Fuller, see my book Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence (State University of New York Press, 2014).

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