Successful African-American Mathematics Students in Academically Unacceptable High Schools

Article excerpt

The current era of educational accountability has been dubbed a dark period in American education for a significant segment of the minority population (Kohn, 2000). For African-American students attending inner-city schools it has been particularly sinister. Spurred by the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), state accountability systems have disproportionately subjected inner-city schools and its students (most of whom are African American) to its callous repercussions: repercussions which include publicly identifying low-performing schools in the media. Steele (2004) asserts that the consequences from failure to meet accountability goals (specifically testing) consistently contributes to dropout rates among African Americans and puts their lives on a course of restricted opportunity. Drug and alcohol abuse, high crime rates, incessant violence, and extreme poverty are just a few of the negative environmental factors that create even more challenging educational circumstances for inner-city schools and their surrounding communities (Dandridge, Edwards, and Pleasants 2000). While it is obvious that "these schools need help desperately," preliminary evidence indicates states and districts are frequently slow to aggressively improve or overhaul failing schools (American Federation of Teachers, 1999; Brady, 2003).

Nonetheless, there are pillars of success in low-performing schools that are frequently overshadowed and perhaps unknown to the public. Most conspicuously unnoticed are high-achieving students in mathematics. Few would disagree with the conjecture that mathematics has been the proverbial Achilles heel for students attending low-performing schools; therefore it seems appropriate to make the central focus of this study those students who stand out academically despite the dreadful conditions present in their school and community. Accordingly, it is an objective of this study to contribute to the limited research associated with state-designated poor schools and high-achieving African-American mathematics students attending such schools. This study chronicles such students' journeys by examining the following questions:

1. What are the reasons why successful mathematics students have been able to thrive in academically unacceptable schools?

2. Why they have chosen to stay in these academically unacceptable schools despite having the option to leave for a better performing school?

NCLB and Louisiana's Accountability System

By virtue of the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the federal government yielded jurisdiction over public schools to individual states. This formality notwithstanding, the U.S. federal government has flexed its financial muscle over the years to dictate the manner in which states operate their public schools. Rose (2004) indicates that "NCLB moved the federal effort to influence schools to a new and higher level--more aggressive, focused, and directive (p. 121)." This new legislation promises an important shift in efforts at all levels to improve the quality of public education (Rittner & Lucas, 2003). NCLB seeks to close the persistent achievement gap through a multifaceted and comprehensive approach that is based on accountability for results; an emphasis on doing what works based on scientific research; expanded parental options; and expanded local control and flexibility (Thompson, 2002; US Department of Education, 2002).

In addition, NCLB requires states to publicly identify low-performing schools. Furthermore, those schools identified as poor performing, are required to offer students the option of attending higher performing schools through the school choice mandate. School choice policies were upheld by the US Supreme Court in 2002 and hailed by the US Department of Education as "perhaps the most important education decision (by the Supreme Court) since Brown v. …