Exploring How School Counselors Position Low-Income African American Girls as Mathematics and Science Learners

By West-Olatunji, Cirecie; Shure, Lauren et al. | Professional School Counseling, February 2010 | Go to article overview
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Exploring How School Counselors Position Low-Income African American Girls as Mathematics and Science Learners

West-Olatunji, Cirecie, Shure, Lauren, Pringle, Rose, Adams, Thomasenia, Lewis, Dandria, Cholewa, Blaire, Professional School Counseling

The underrepresentation of low-income African American girls in science-related careers is of concern. Applying the concept of positionality, the authors explored how three school counselors at low-resourced schools view this population of learners to either support or discourage mathematics and science careers. The results of this study suggest that these school counselors evidence lowered expectations for their students. The authors suggest that school counselors need to become aware of how their perceptions and beliefs impact academic achievement.


African American girls, particularly those from low-income communities, are historically underrepresented in mathematics- and science-related careers (National Science Foundation, 2003). It has been suggested that school counselors may inadvertently contribute to this phenomenon and serve as gatekeepers for African American and other socially marginalized students (Bemak & Chung, 2005). Contemporary scholarship in counselor education suggests that, by practicing social justice principles, school counselors can counter these gate-keeping behaviors (Vera & Speight, 2003). Through the lens of positionality theory, the researchers sought to explore how three school counselors positioned low-income African American primary schoolgirls as mathematics and science learners.


Mathematics and science disciplines play a continuous and increasingly significant role for individuals in society, at both the personal and professional levels. Starting as early as primary school, children begin to show an interest, or lack thereof, in both mathematics and science. Though the representation of African American students in these fields has increased in the past decades, only a small percentage of African American students actually pursue mathematics- and science-related careers (Atwater, 2000; National Science Board, 2006). Additionally, significant progress has been made toward gender equity (Kahle & Meece, 1994). For instance, at the eighth-grade level, girls' mathematics achievement parallels that of boys (Campbell & Clewell, 1999) and academically advanced girls are taking biology, chemistry, and physics classes in nearly the same numbers as their male counterparts (Kerr & Kurpius, 2004). However, despite this progress toward gender and cultural equity in these content areas, several factors continue to influence chronic underachievement among African American girls, such as the girls' self-perceptions (Acker & Oatley, 1993; Packard & Nguyen, 2003), school counselor attitudes (Harley, Jolivette, McCormick, & Tice, 2002), and parent involvement (Taylor, Hinton, & Wilson, 1995).

The National Science Foundation (2003) reported statistics on 4th-, 8th-, and 12th- grade students' mathematics and science performance from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2000. The statistics showed that in these grades, the percentage of students performing below basic level in mathematics ranged from 20% to 26% for White students and 61% to 69% for African American students. Similarly, national trends in average science scores indicated higher levels of science performance for White when compared to African American students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. The same set of statistics showed that the gap in achievement between White and African American 9-to-13-yearolds remained the same while the gap grew for 17year-olds from 1990 to 2000 (National Science Foundation).

These figures show that, compared to their White peers, African American youth seem to be trailing behind in performance-based tests in the core subjects of mathematics and science. Systemic considerations for chronic low performance on mathematics and science achievement tests among low-income culturally diverse students have included (a) insufficient and poor quality instruction (Hewson, Kahle, Scantlebury, & Davies, 2001; Kozol, 1991); (b) bias in assessment (Roysircar-Sodowsky & Maestas, 2000); (c) student self-perceptions (Acker & Oatley, 1993; Packard & Nguyen, 2003); and (d) student-teacher classroom dynamics (Harley et al.

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Exploring How School Counselors Position Low-Income African American Girls as Mathematics and Science Learners


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