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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Celebrating a Leader in Math Education

This week began with milestones to celebrate. Everybody knows about Tuesday, but that was the second one for me. On Monday, Everly Broadway, my beloved, successfully defended her dissertation: African American Achievement in High School Mathematics. It is a study of how reforming curriculum can influence achievement for all students, with special attention to the way that a better designed curriculum can benefit African American students. I am now proud to be married to Dr. Broadway, the degree soon to be officially conferred.

For some time, educators have discussed the “achievement gap” between minorities and white students in the U. S. education system. Many have focused research on the school atmosphere and the teachers’ ways of interacting with students. Habits of low expectations for minority students influence the ways some teachers teach. Research into different expectations of girls and boys in math class has led to significant insight into the ways teachers interact with students. Gender research has helped to bolster the recognition that race, ethnicity, and economic level may affect the expectations and teaching practices of classroom teachers.

Embedded deeper in the teaching of mathematics is a cultural assumption that only an elite few people are smart in mathematics. This assumption about a born elite has sometimes been referred to in shorthand as “the math gene.” So thorough is this cultural formation that no one is surprised to hear a highly competent professional adult say, “I’ve always been bad at math.” Earlier education research addressed the problem as “math anxiety.”

Dr. Broadway has been driven by, among many issues, the way that this view of mathematics is so thoroughly naturalized in the culture at large, and particularly in the culture of education. I don’t know how many times she has asked me questions like: “Why do people think it’s fine for only 10% to succeed in math? Why would teachers be satisfied to assume that almost all students in high school cannot learn math?”

Based on her findings, this is not the assumption of many other education systems in other parts of the world. Moreover, where the education system does not assume “the math gene,” teachers, mathematicians, administrators, and school counselors take on the challenge of conducting research and finding ways to do a better job of teaching math to all students. If you already believe that 90% will not be able to cut it, that puts the whole system off the hook for not doing better at bringing all students up to the standard.

Dr. Broadway has taken up with civil rights veteran activists and historians, such as Bob Moses, Charles Cobb, and Charles Payne, and mathematician and educational reformer Carol Malloy, sharing their cause of analyzing and closing the achievement gap in mathematics. They have described access to courses in higher mathematics as one of the great civil rights struggles of this era. Part of the problem is that too many schools have designed their math curriculum to delay or discourage students from starting to take higher math courses. Along with the structural barriers, so many families and neighborhoods are full of discouraged people who fear that since they had a hard time in math, their children will not be good at it. As with any struggle to open up opportunity, there is the need to change both the structures of power and the hopes of those who have not had access.

How often have teachers, frustrated that a student does not quickly “get it” in algebra class concluded that the student just does not have what it takes to succeed in math? How often have teachers, who found math easy as students, assumed that the way they were taught must be the best or only way to teach math courses? How often have well-meaning school counselors discouraged students from taking higher math courses on the assumption that they would find them too challenging and probably fail? How often have school administrators made judgments about tracking students into lower math courses because they are used to seeing certain groups do poorly in math? How often has the motivation to push more students into learning higher math been undermined in part by the conflicting short-term goal of keeping scores up on high-stakes tests in algebra and geometry?

Dr. Broadway’s research looks at new ways of designing high school math curriculum which show promise in helping all students achieve in math. Her research shows that when African American students are given opportunities to take higher level math courses, they can succeed in them. It shows that the curriculum design which links mathematics to real problems from science, from professions, from economics, from public policy—from the kinds of things that matter to human living—students who have been assumed not to be capable of “getting it,” can “get it.” Better math curriculum design delivered to all students makes “the math gene” appear as what it is—a myth. School systems committed to success in math for all students can make headway across the board, and the achievement gap can be narrowed. Over time, perhaps it can even disappear.

Dr. Broadway’s research examines the qualitative research, and has much promise to offer in this area. At its core, however, it is a quantitative study of achievement. The results on the initial high school math course leave no doubt. Better courses can improve math learning for African American students, and they can make a dramatic difference in a short time.

The disappearance of the achievement gap probably will not be immediate, but it is not so far away as most would assume. Much effort is being proposed and even carried out to make sure that children of all economic levels get a good start in school from an early age. Finding ways to back away from the industrial sized schools toward more high-touch schools closer to where children live is gaining momentum. Linking education to mentoring, internships, and specialized training is making a comeback. Changing our ways of thinking about math learning is an important next step. Dr. Broadway is committed to opening the doors so that “every child can achieve in higher mathematics.” I have heard her say those words hundreds of times, and it is her passion. There are many reasons why these words are true, and the rest of us need to join her to see that this mission will be carried forward.


BK said...

Working with inner city youth, and seeing african american males struggle, I'd be very interested in reading Dr.Broadway's findings. If there were an abstract that I could read at first, or find other material that would help the students I serve, I would be most appreciative.

Thank you!

Mike Broadway said...

Now is the time of final editing and formatting. By next month, you should be able to get in touch with her. She works for the NC Department of Public Instruction.


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