kitchen table math, the sequel: Middle-school Math Classes Are Key To Closing Racial Academic Achievement Gap

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Middle-school Math Classes Are Key To Closing Racial Academic Achievement Gap

ScienceDaily (Apr. 22, 2009) — More challenging middle-school math classes and increased access to advanced courses in predominantly black urban high schools may be the key to closing the racial academic achievement gap, according to a University of Illinois study.


"Although we've poured a lot of money and resources into trying to reduce inequalities between black and white students, we've mainly focused on test scores and that hasn't been successful," said Christy Lleras, a U of I assistant professor of human and community development.

Why target middle-school math? Lleras said there's a feedback loop between math placement, student effort, and academic achievement.

"Over time, these three factors affect each other. Students who take more advanced math courses in middle school lengthen their lead over time, and the positive school-related behaviors developed in those advanced courses lead to even higher achievement.

"But the opposite is also true. Lower math placement in middle school significantly lowers a student's chances of getting into higher-level math courses in high school, which translates into fewer skills and behaviors and greater achievement gaps in high school," she said.

These gaps are largest in high-minority urban schools. "For kids in predominantly black urban schools, the biggest predictor of the math course they took in high school was the math course they took in eighth grade. For all other students, the biggest predictor was their prior achievement, not the course they took," she noted.

Lleras used data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Educational Longitudinal Study to follow the effects of math placement, school-related behaviors, and achievement in more than 6,500 public school students as they progressed from the eighth to the tenth grade.

Transcript data indicated the highest-level math course the student had taken at these levels. Math achievement was measured via tests given at the end of these school years. And engagement and effort were measured by teachers' evaluations of the student's attentiveness, disruptiveness, and homework habits.

Lleras believes that increased access to more advanced and rigorous math classes in high-minority urban schools can have a significant direct effect on all students' achievement and particularly that of African American students.

"Being in a classroom where the expectations are higher, the course work is more rigorous, and the climate is more academic has huge effects on student effort," she said.

Lleras worries that lower-performing schools will concentrate on teaching to the tests mandated by No Child Left Behind.

"Instead of focusing on test scores, we may be better able to affect educational trajectories by improving teacher quality and reducing class sizes, which helps to create school climates that foster both academic learning and student effort," she said.

Because racial achievement gaps were already significant by eighth grade, Lleras believes educators must begin to address gaps in achievement and opportunities to learn much earlier.

She argues that universal preschool and expansion of Head Start would go a long way toward reducing early racial inequalities because early-childhood programs tend to affect student-related attitudes and engagement more than achievement test scores.

"Children can't learn new material until they have the toolkit of skills and school-related behaviors to do so," she said.

"Then we have to make a sustained effort to keep these children learning over time. We need a persistent and additional effort to support urban minority students through tutoring programs and improved access to challenging material and high-quality teachers," she said.

"This study was a snapshot of three years in these kids' lives, and in just three years, they were falling farther and farther behind," she added.

The study was published in a recent issue of the American Educational Research Journal.

12 comments:

Paul B said...

Just about covers every thing there is doesn't it?

Head Start, check! Better student teacher ratios, check! Teaching to the test, check! Advanced math courses, check! Student behaviors, check! Better teachers, check! Higher expectations, check! Universal preschool, check!

Not having a clue, priceless!

SteveH said...

"Lleras worries that lower-performing schools will concentrate on teaching to the tests mandated by No Child Left Behind."

Darn those pesky tests. Let's ignore them! Yeah, that's the ticket! We'll get so much more accomplished if we don't have to worry about tests.



"Instead of focusing on test scores, we may be better able to affect educational trajectories by improving teacher quality and reducing class sizes, which helps to create school climates that foster both academic learning and student effort," she said.

Speaking of trajectories, if you launch a SmartBoard off of a school roof that is 25 feet above the ground at an angle of 30 degrees from the horizontal with a speed of 10 feet per second, which car in the parking lot will it hit?

Allison said...

Guess we all read it the same way...why, if you just had challenging courses in middle school, the gap might go away!

Which smacks of "if you just put black kids in seats next to white kids, the gap might go away!" or "if we just had more money, the gap might go away!"

But the best was this nonsequitur:

She argues that universal preschool and expansion of Head Start would go a long way toward reducing early racial inequalities because early-childhood programs tend to affect student-related attitudes and engagement more than achievement test scores.

Got that? we need universal preschool BECAUSE universal preschool DOESN'T AFFECT ACHIEVEMENT TEST SCORES.

What?

oh, sorry, the funny word there is "because".

The author somehow didn't think to write the really obvious sentence:
"She argues that universal preschool..would go a long way toward reducing inequalities EVEN THOUGH or DESPITE THE FACT THAT universal prek affects attitudes more than achievement test scores.

The entrenchment of the beliefs is so complete that no evidence dislodges them.

Don't get me wrong: better middle school math is a need. But I was a consultant to teachers in an black urban high school in Oakland, CA, and access to advanced courses was one of the jokes where only the kids weren't laughing. They had an AP calc class, and a pre calc honors class. And these kids couldn't tell me 6 * 9 without a calculator.

Can we tattoo this on the foreheads' of teachers and administrators? Access is meaningless without mastery of the prerequisite skills.

Paul B said...

Allison:

BINGO!

RPondiscio said...

I read this sausage of a story over and over again, trying to make sense of it, what the study found and what the author was recommeding. Finally I threw up my hands and gave up. I'm not sure if it's the study, or Science Daily's writer, but the signal-to-noise ratio here is off the charts.

Didn't we just see a Brookings report on how kids pushed into algebra without the requisite skills are floundering? This is how circles turn vicious.

Paul B said...

RPondisco:

Whew, thought it was just me. I read this three times, then went to the original article thinking I was missing some context or something. Nope!

My district is flooded with consultants and whenever they critique anything it's always prefaced with "Well research shows that...". My standard response for the last two years is, "Wow, didn't know about that. Could you send me that paper?"

I've never, ever, gotten a paper. Articles like this might be why they're not so much into sharing.

I tutored an AP algebra student this winter. He couldn't tell me the factors of 36 without a calculator and then he didn't get them all. Funny how the focus is getting INTO AP classes while concurrently downplaying testing.

It seems like the goal is to have the course, not to get anything out of it.

VickyS said...

Either you have a parent at home who is able and willing to teach you math basics or you don't. The schools just don't do it. That right there may prove to be the biggest current reason for the achievement gap for kids entering middle school.

As an aside, many schools think they can solve this problem by trying to engage more parents. Typical--go after something they really can't control and then they have an excuse for nonperformance.

Of course I think they can solve this problem by simply teaching math properly in the elementary grades. What a concept.

And sure, motivation and interest are prerequisite to success. Who knows, maybe Head Start kids are more motivated (hey Paul, where is the research??). But what kid doesn't shut down when thrown into a class that's over his/her head? "Access" to high level courses without the necessary competencies can only lead to demotivation (hurting that student) or a dumbing down of the class as an accommodation to the unprepared student (hurting the whole class).

This is why I think our state's 8th grade algebra requirement is nutty. Without the proper articulation between elementary and middle school and indeed, all the way back to the primary grades, there's just no way...

TIMSS analysis shows that the higher the grade level, the worse the US compares with other countries (the international achievement gap). Maybe at least part of that is because parental at-home tutors run out of steam as the kids enter middle school and high school.

Kai said...

How come these people always ignore the most obvious solution to the problem? A rigorous, thought provoking, content-rich national curriculum. What a concept.

CassyT said...

SteveH:
Speaking of trajectories, if you launch a SmartBoard off of a school roof that is 25 feet above the ground at an angle of 30 degrees from the horizontal with a speed of 10 feet per second, which car in the parking lot will it hit?Thank you. My monitor is now covered in coffee! I needed that laugh as I sit in the lobby at the NCTM Conference. Maybe NCTM should just send teachers to this website. It's certainly less expensive.

SteveH said...

Before you work too hard on the problem, please note that there is no one right solution. Let's just say that it's my token offering to NCTM.

CassyT said...

I had a another giggle as the presenter in a Lesson Study session brought up learning trajectories. And the answer is "my car" although I would have accepted, "the car of the guy who authorized the money for all the smartboards."

SteveH said...

"learning trajectories"

It this really a good phrase to use?

"Well, we threw the student up in the air, but for some reason, he didn't stay up there. Maybe we could try a different angle when he gets out of the hospital."