by Lee V. Stiff, NCTM President 2000-2002
NCTM News Bulletin, May/June 2001
Over the last several decades, we have seen the narrowing of the performance gap between girls and boys in school mathematics. Addressing the disparity has resulted in marked improvements in comparison data. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for efforts to improve the performance of minority students in mathematics.
Certainly, the differences in student performance in mathematics by ethnicity have been well documented. Yet, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveal that over the last 20 years the gap between majority and minority achievement in high-level mathematics has not changed significantly.
The lack of improvement in minority students' mathematics knowledge, skills, and problem-solving abilities creates economic, social, and political disadvantages for these students as they advance into the future. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor show a stronger correlation between average hourly wages and mathematics ability than between these earnings and reading comprehension. Furthermore, the Department of Labor reports that the ten fastest growing occupations in the United States are in areas that depend on competence in mathematics, science, and technology. How is it, then, that academic differences between majority and minority students have persisted?
Several factors may contribute to the disparity. One may be that schools or teachers have different goals for minority students in mathematics classrooms. All across our two great nations--in rural, urban, and suburban settings--minority students are frequently relegated to "minimum proficiency" curricula, where the emphasis is on developing skills that hardly move students beyond "the basics." Meanwhile, majority students are likely to encounter curricula that reach well beyond "the basics," stressing problem solving, making connections, and showing multiple representations of important mathematical ideas and relationships.
Another factor that may perpetuate the gap between majority and minority students in mathematics performance is the difference in opportunities available for learning high-quality mathematics. Data show that about 26 percent of all public school students in grades 712 (more than 4 million students) are enrolled in mathematics classes that are taught by teachers without even a minor in mathematics or mathematics education (Ingersoll and Gruber 1996). In urban high schools, mathematics students have only a 50 percent chance of having a qualified mathematics teacher (Education Trust 1996). Moreover, whereas 70 percent of low-minority schools have mathematics teachers with mathematics majors, only 42 percent of high-minority schools do (Education Trust 1996). There should be little doubt that these conditions affect minority students dramatically.
A principal factor contributing to the performance gap may be tracking--a remnant of the "new math" era, when separating students into different curricular tracks on the basis of their ability was a common practice. Although research indicates that tracking does not benefit students in mathematics, the thinking associated with it--that learning mathematics is an innate ability rather than one that is developed--remains with some mathematics teachers. Unfortunately, this belief can lead teachers to feel less responsible for their students' mathematics performance and undermine the equity in reform mathematics.
One important element that will help eliminate the disparities in mathematics education is the Equity Principle articulated in NCTM's Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (2000). This principle states that all students can be successful in mathematics and should be held to high expectations. This belief is one that teachers and education decision makers must agree on--prior to changing teaching practices or the allocation of resources--if they are going to make improvements that will benefit all students.
There is plenty of evidence that minority students can perform at high levels in mathematics--one need only look at the achievements in mathematics made by public school students in Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, and Pittsburgh, to name just a few localities.
To enable minority students in other communities to reach their potential, we need to ask ourselves the following questions: What am I doing to guarantee that all my students are taking the best mathematics that my school has to offer? How am I using information about my students to serve them better? Will I accept my students' failures as my own?
If we are to leave no student behind, we must become more proactive for the rights of every student. We must advocate for school and curricular changes consistent with Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. We must agree to set higher standards for our students and to accept higher standards for ourselves. And finally, we must demand that policymakers at all levels support a high-quality mathematics education for each and every child.
Education Trust. Education Watch: The 1996 Education Trust State and National Data Book. Washington, D.C.: Education Trust, 1996.
Ingersoll, Richard M., and Kerry Gruber. Out-of-Field Teaching and Educational Equality. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1996.