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The belief that Black students have worse performance in math in comparison with their White classmates has taken root among teachers, students, curriculum developers and researchers.
It is possible to assume that it rises from the first years of the “post- Brown v. Board of Education case” period when the “separate but equal” doctrine and segregation in education were declared unconstitutional (Martin 121), and when Black and White students began to learn together. Today many pedagogues have accepted this statement as given and adapt their teaching activity to it.
Nevertheless, today the question of Black students’ poor achievement in mathematics remains burning: understanding its validity and, if it is valid, its essence and source is very important, as it may give teachers valuable background for developing appropriate approach to teaching Black students. Besides, this knowledge may be valuable for Black students themselves to enhance their self-efficacy.
The purpose of this research is to find whether there is the evidence of the math performance gap between Black and White students and, if we find that it exists, to throw ling upon its origin. There are several hypotheses that we need to check:
- The mathematics performance gap between Black and White students exists.
- The existing gap between Black and White students is caused by cultural or cognitive peculiarities of Black students’ thinking and learning.
- The existing gap between Black and White students is caused by Black students’ low motivation to studying mathematics.
- The existing gap between Black and White students is caused or aggravated by the commonly accepted negative stereotype.
- The existing gap is caused or aggravated by some other factors.
We will observe sources devoted to the topic of our research and test these hypotheses.
Existence of Math Performance Gap
Several studies corroborate the statement about existence of the math performance gap between Black and White students; quantitative evaluation of their performance had been carried out for several decades. According to Rothman, the gap has reduced substantially during the 1970s-80s, but in the late 80s, the progress “stalled” (cited in United States Commission on Civil Rights 9).
In 2000, the gap still existed: while about 40 per cent of white 4th grade students’ math performance was at or above proficient, only 5 per cent of Black students performed at the same level (10). Moreover, Fuetsch and Ware (in Hayman and Ware 307) state that during the investigation carried out between 1995 and 2004, each year the gap was bigger than in the beginning of the observation at least in one of the observed grades.
We may also allude to the fresher data on the discussed problem. According to the results of the 2006 investigation of school students’ tests results presented in (Anderson), Black students were 41 points behind non-Hispanic students.
Paige and Witty (35) state that in 2007, the difference between a number of White and Black fourth graders who performed at or above the proficient level was 51 per cent White versus 15 per cent Black; in the eighth grade, 82 per cent of White students performed at or above the basic level versus 47 per cent of Black students.
Besides, the investigation in (Anderson) demonstrated that there is no strong correlation between age and performance in math: the gap varied in different grades. Finally, the gap in math was bigger than that in other subjects, which makes studying of math achievement gap apart from gaps in other subjects reasonable.
This gives us opportunity to state that there are certain factors beyond ethnicity itself and students’ age that impacts Black students’ performance in math. Some suggestions on these factors were expressed in the hypotheses formulated in the introduction. We will discuss them in the next chapter.
Causes and Explanation of Math Performance Gap
First of all, it is necessary to mark that today there is no single answer to the question on causes of the math performance gap. The range of opinions lies in different dimensions, even in such as ideological, racial and political. As for the scientific research, the given issue is mostly studied from sociocultural, socioeconomic, pedagogical and genetic perspective (Paige and Witty 59).
One of the existing theories is the “socioeconomic disparities” (60). According to this theory, the long period of slavery impacted Black citizens’ performance in math. Black people had no opportunity to study for centuries, and the consequence of this situation is today’s achievement gap. Paige and Witty state that the difference in “parenting” skills between parents of different social classes and professions has been corroborated by several researches (61).
However, not only past conditions are considered to impact Black students’ math performance. According to August 2000 NAEP report (in United States Commission on Civil Rights 10), the math achievement gap has connection with students’ current social condition: economically disadvantaged students perform poorer.
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Another significant question to discuss is Black students’ motivation to studying math. Significant investigation was carried out by Rech (1994 212-220): the researcher found that the attitudes of Black students, even those having high performance at school, are poorer than those of White students.
Rech argues that Black students demonstrate anxiety towards mathematics and have doubts about importance of learning it. To some extent, this can be linked with the “socioeconomic disparities” theory: analogically to parenting skills, parenting behavior also takes place in families (Paige and Witty 60).
Thus, it is possible to state that Black students have low motivation to studying math. This should be considered by math teachers, as studying mathematics is important for students’ career prospects. Wilkens (in Irons 340) states that this problem has now been taking shape in our society; to get prestigious high-paid jobs, Black students who are the future employees should acquire necessary background and skills in math.
Negative stereotypes and emotional environment also prove to be the factors that aggravate the math achievement gap. Haynes, Ben-Avie and Ensign (94) state that emotional environment is one of the strongest factors that impact Black students’ performance in math.
They emphasize that in many cases teachers have prejudice about Black students’ math skills and expect them to fail, which actually influences their performance. This statement is confirmed by the research carried out by Rydell, McConnell and Beilock (949-966): when Black students were reminded about negative stereotyping about their performance in math, they began to actually perform worse.
The research by Schweinle and Mims (501-514) also showed that Black students have lower math self-efficacy. Thus, there is one more point to consider for math teachers who work with Black students: motivation and self-efficacy in math are the issues that require working on beyond improving math skills themselves, and it is important to struggle against negative stereotypes and anxiety to cope with this task.
Finally, one more assumption about gap in mathematics achievements is that there is certain inherent cognitive difference between Black and White students that is caused by race. Finding the answer to this question is a very difficult task, as studying cognition is much more complicated than studying motivation and attitude.
Thus, despite a series of researches have been fulfilled, there is still no universal opinion on this issue. In (Cwikla 3), we see the comparative histogram of performance of students of different race in regards with different aspects of studying math. White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and other students are compared in being good at measurement, geometry, number sense, probability and statistics, and algebra.
The histogram does not provide clear answer to the question. On the one hand, the author emphasizes that the absolute difference between White and Black students varies in different areas, which may be interpreted as the evidence of cognitive difference between students of different races.
The research results demonstrate that Black, Hispanic and White students had their best performance in algebra, Asian students performed the best in geometry (9). On the other hand, we may notice that despite the absolute difference varies, the general trend is quite neat: Asian and White students have the best performance in all areas; other students have the third place; Hispanic students have the fourth place, and Black students the fifth; exception is probability and statistics where the performance of Hispanic and Black students are quite high and almost equal; besides, there is slight difference in algebra performance. Thus, the difference in performance in different areas exists, but is seems somewhat blurred.
One more point that should be considered is that there is the difference between the notions “cause” and “influence”. Despite we have outlined several factors that prove to impact Black students’ performance in math, it is difficult to state whether they cause the math performance gap or just aggravate it. Answering this question requires further study. Besides, it is important to take into account that these factors may be connected and influence each other.
For example, if the factor of heredity exists in regards with math skills, low motivation may be also “inherited”; negative stereotypes may impact math self-efficacy and thus cause anxiety; finally, social environment may “persuade” economically disadvantaged Black students that they have no opportunity to get high position and well-paid job and that there is anyway no need to learn math.
Having observed the sources devoted to the gap in math performance between Black and White students, we can make the following conclusions:
- The gap in math performance between White and Black students exists.
- The gap in math performance is bigger than the gap in performance in other subjects.
- Despite after elimination of racial segregation in education the gap was reducing quite rapidly, today this reduction has almost stalled.
- Several approaches to explaining the gap in performance in math exist, and no one of them has been recognized the only correct.
- There is the evidence that math skills and math behavior are “parented” in families.
- Black students have low motivation and strong anxiety towards math.
- Negative stereotypes influence Black students’ math self-efficacy and performance in math.
- The question of inherent cognitive difference between Black and White students remains open.
The points discussed above should be considered by school teachers, as, regardless of causes and factors of the gap in math performance, their task is to make this gap as small as possible.
Anderson, Nick. “Performance Gap on Tests Uneven for Black Students.” Washington Post. 2006. Web.
Cwikla, Julie. “Differential Mathematics Performance on the TIMSS-R across Delaware Students of Color.” Triangle Coalition. PDF File. Web.
Hayman, Robert L., and Leland Ware. Choosing Equality: Essays and Narratives on the Desegregation Experience. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. Print.
Irons, Peter H. Jim Crown’s Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision. New York: Viking, 2002. Print.
Martin, Waldo E. Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998. Print.
Paige, Rod, and Elaine P. Witty. The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Right Issue of Our Time. New York, NY: AMACOM, American Management Association, 2010. Print.
Rech, Janice F. “A Comparison of the Mathematics Attitudes of Black Students According to Grade Level, Gender, and Academic Achievement.” Journal of Negro Education 63(2) (1994): 212-220. Print.
Rydell, Robert J., Allen R. McConnell, and Sian L. Beilock. “Multiple Social Identities and Stereotype Threat: Imbalance, Accessibility, and Working Memory.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96(5) (2009): 949-966. Print.
United States Commission on Civil Rights. Office of the General Counsel. Closing the Achievement Gap: The Impact of Standards-Based Education Reform on Student Performance: Draft Report for Commissioners’ Review. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Office of the General Counsel, 2004. Print.
Schweinle, Amy, and Grace A. Mims. “Mathematics Self-Efficacy: Stereotype Threat Versus Resilience.” Social Psychology of Education 12(4) (2009): 501-514. Print.