Issues in Mathematics Education with African American Students

By Pennington, Harvey J. | Multicultural Education, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Issues in Mathematics Education with African American Students


Pennington, Harvey J., Multicultural Education


In the U.S. about 20 percent of all school age children are African American although the success of these individuals is often disappointing. The drop out rate from school is at least 36 percent in urban settings; this is further paired with the fact that more African American males are incarcerated than are attending college. The longer term outlook for males is discouraging-for the first time in modern history more African American males are behind bars than all other groups (Ladson-Billings, 1997).

Though attaining a high school diploma is not a guarantee of success, the absence of one is almost certain to result in further socioeconomic marginalization and failure. In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights leaders declared literacy to be the key to full citizenship for African Americans. Today, Bob Moses, one of the leading veterans of the civil rights movement, cogently argues that "numeracy" is a "new" civil rights issue. The reasoning is relatively straightforward: mathematics in general, and algebra specifically, acts as a curricular gatekeeper; with success in this content area significant opportunity opens up both educationally and economically. Actuarial studies do verify that of all college graduates, those with the most math credits earn the most income-and further, this pattern can be tracked developmentally through primary and secondary education.

Strangely, mathematics is both feared and revered in our general society. Though the vast majority of citizens would hide personal illiteracy-the innumeracy of vast numbers of people is a source of humor. Seemingly, most individuals believe math to be too difficult, and reserved for the intelligentsia. Part of this has to do with the perception of what is required to learn math: A popular interpretation is that one must possess an innate ability or even talent to learn math. The American parent often surmises that poor performance in math is a sign that the student lacks some intrinsic aptitude. By contrast, Asian parents when given a similar outcome with a student will interpret the situation quite differently-they are more likely to view unsatisfactory performance as a problem with the learner's effort.

In order to teach math more successfully to African Americans-and all students-a modification of what math is as a knowledge needs to be accomplished. Such a framework was recently composed by Davis (1998). Davis delineated four relatively disparate dimensions of math as a type of knowledge and how assessment varies as a result of the definitions.

Math as a Form of Knowledge

The first dimension in Davis' schema is the most traditional description of math as a form of academic knowledge. Mathematics is defined as a logical structure acquired through abstract thought; this structure is believed to be a reflection of reality as a quality and the relationship among those qualities. This view has a long history, especially in Western philosophy, where mathematicians see objective reality as being organized via mathematical relationships. In educational settings students begin learning the most elemental qualities (e.g., number, point, line, equality, inequality, etc.) and gradually acquire increasingly sophisticated conceptual maps.

It is posited that increased mathematical knowledge occurs through higher levels of abstract conceptualization and logical reasoning. Typically, the evaluation paired with this perspective is that of standardized-like tests; the rationale of this assessment is that the learners possess basic, proficient or advanced levels of competency with the content. Unfortunately, such normative testing has given consistently unflattering and probably unfair impressions of some cultural minorities-especially African Americans.

The second dimension defines mathematical knowledge as a patterned generalization of the concrete world-specifically acquired via concrete experience. Mathematics is understood as a complex arrangement of signs and the relationships among those signs; competence in mathematics means that the individual has developed skills in his or her behavioral repertoire that permit effective manipulation of the signs and symbols in the various mathematical systems. …

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