This paper examines a preservice teacher initiative whose overarching goal is to begin to reverse the cycle of educational failure for students labeled "at-risk." Although research in teacher preparation has explored the ways in which preservice teachers learn to teach, few studies have focused on how teaching in an alternative high school interacts with and complicates the process of learning to teach mathematics. The study discussed in this paper investigates the influences of a mathematics teaching experience in an alternative high school on five preservice teachers who planned, designed, and taught an integrated mathematics class for at-risk students who were enrolled in the school. The findings reveal that the teaching experience provided the preservice teachers with a vehicle for reflecting on and reconsidering their conceptions of mathematics teaching and perceptions of at-risk students. The analysis suggests that the experience enhanced the preservice teachers" perceptions of at-risk students, prompted them to set higher expectations for the students, and encouraged them to engage in conceptually-focused mathematics teaching. In addition, teaching in the alternative high school provided the preservice teachers with experiences that fostered an understanding of how at-risk students think mathematically and how to cultivate mathematical thinking in at-risk students.
This study evolved out of a commitment to improve mathematics teaching and learning in an alternative high school and to begin to reverse the cycle of educational failure for students labeled "at-risk." Although research in teacher preparation has explored the ways in which preservice teachers learn to teach mathematics, few studies have focused on how teaching in an alternative high school interacts with and complicates this process. Paralleling the need for more effective mathematics education programs for at-risk students is the need to improve the preparation of preservice teachers to work with at-risk students and other marginalized students. A goal of this study, to produce instructional change and to improve the conditions for learning, developed out of a recognition that existing instructional practices underestimate and constrain educational achievement of at-risk students (Moll & Diaz, 1987). The teaching experience examined in this study attempted to provide teacher preparation geared for at-risk students; emphasize teaching mathematics through context; encourage the demonstration of the relationships between mathematics and the lives of the at-risk students; and, the use of hands-on materials, small group, one-on-one instruction, or out-of-class experiences (Tobias, 1992). In order to examine what preservice mathematics teachers believe and do in response to a student population composed of at-risk mathematics learners in an alternative high school, this study investigated two research questions:
1. What challenges are faced by preservice teachers as they attempt to teach mathematics for understanding in an alternative high school?
2. In what ways does participating in a mathematics teaching experience in an alternative high school influence how preservice teachers learn to teach mathematics?
When students' home resources and experiences differ from the expectations on which school experiences are built (McCarthy & Levin, 1992), they are often at risk of not realizing their personal and academic promise. Because the term "at-risk" focuses on individual characteristics, it labels and stigmatizes the learner. However, although objectionable, the term "at-risk" persists because of its wide acceptance and research base (Garcia & Walker de Felix, 1992). In her discussion of the at-risk secondary mathematics student, Vatter (1992) summarizes the characteristics of at-risk learners as: (1) poor self-concept; (2) poor academic performance, high absenteeism, and discipline problems; (3) low aspirations and parents or guardians with low expectations; (4) low family socioeconomic level; (5) nontraditional family life, often with a single or foster parent, or with a stepparent; and (6) inadequate goals or lack of future orientation. …