Sparking the Genius of Pre-Service Teachers: Using Diversity to Promote Student Achievement

Article excerpt

A review of the literature regarding the influence of teacher attitudes as a contributing factor to the mathematics achievement gap has shown several significant findings. One finding is that, though proficiency in mathematics is important, African American students are less likely than White students to be taught by teachers who hold high expectations for their learning and who emphasize high-quality mathematics instruction. (1) Another finding is that secondary mathematics teachers may hold lower expectations for black students because they believe that these students "are not as motivated or do not work as hard as their counterparts in other ethnic groups." (2) Several educational scholars have attributed these negative teacher beliefs and attitudes to "the prevailing sociopolitical conditions that predispose teacher attitudes and expectations about students. These scholars theorize that societal conditions allow some educators to take advantage of their position, power, and prestige to negatively impact the educational experiences of African American and other marginalized students." (3) As a result of negative teacher attitudes and beliefs, African American students fall behind white students in math achievement and even in enrollment in higher math courses. (4) In particular, "as early as third grade, African American students demonstrate significantly lower performance in mathematics as compared to their White, Latino, and Asian/Pacific Islander peers ... as the achievement gap continues to widen over time." (5)

Surprisingly, another finding is that black students' attitudes toward mathematics are not always correlated to teachers' negative attitudes or their level of success in the subject. For example, "given their lower average achievement levels, a somewhat unexpected finding is that black students consistently expressed the most positive attitudes towards mathematics among all student groups." (6) As well, despite negative teacher attitudes and beliefs about their abilities and motivation, "black students reported spending more time on their homework than white students" and were as motivated to learn (7) (reasons for this positive attitude toward mathematics were not revealed). Since this finding documents a discrepancy between some black students' lower achievement levels in mathematics and their positive attitudes and motivation, it can be speculated that the teachers' perceptions may have been inaccurate. I, therefore, believe that it is prudent to look for ways to examine teacher attitudes in order to help "African American students construct mathematics identities that affirm or build on their positive sense of racial identity" (8) and to increase their level of academic achievement overall (beyond mathematics). As such, I have taken a circuitous route to find a way to do just that.

This article examines my personal attempts to close the achievement gap between African American and white students. I think it is pertinent for you, the reader, to have the following biographical background information as you read. I am a white male. Over the last 20 years, I have taught in a variety of settings, from elementary school through graduate-level college courses, and I have worked with diverse groups of students from differing racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. What follows is a summary of my experiences in two university settings as I examined the perceptions of students from diverse groups regarding their attitudes about race.

Pre-Service Teachers and Race in the Classroom

I often asked myself the following questions:

1. If problems associated with student achievement are so closely correlated with the attitudes of teachers, what are teacher educators doing to address these attitudes in teacher preparation programs?

2. How important is race in schools?

I have come to recognize that the meanings of racial signifiers in the classroom are unstable and at times conflicting; however, it does not change the fact that they are real influences on teacher and student experiences. …