This conceptual article describes a model of a school-based, student-led initiative that uses peer tutoring to address underachievement in mathematics. The model is three pronged: a) it suggests a site-based approach to building on existing student excellence in mathematics to drive improved student mathematics achievement; b) it seeks to address the lack of teacher knowledge about urban students and their mathematics understanding; and c) it aims to deepen existing mathematics knowledge, confidence and interest among high school students. In the article, I share analyses of the interactions among tutors, tutees, advisors, and teacher; the mathematical discourse within those interactions; and the hierarchical and collaborative relationships that emerged over time.
The problem of Black and Latino/a underachievement in mathematics has been extensively documented (Strutchens, Lubienski, McGraw, & Westbrook, 2004; Tate, 1997). Although racial/ethnic gaps in mathematics performance are small in early grades, by secondary school the gap in performance between Blacks and Latino/as, and Asian and White students, has widened. In addition, despite positive attitudes towards mathematics, especially on the part of Black students in secondary school (Strutchens et al, 2005), the performance of these students, on average, does not match their high levels of interest.
Several initiatives seek to address this issue. Various college and university programs have been successful at increasing underserved students' mathematics performance, retention, and participation (Hrabowski, Maton, & Greif, 1998; Fullilove & Treisman, 1990) by working with students who exhibit promise in the latter years of high school or early years of college. Comparable school-based programs in high school, however, are not as well documented. Many of the programs that address the problem of Black and Latino/a underachievement in secondary mathematics are out-of-school, off-site, and/or summer programs. Broad efforts to reform school mathematics (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000) are promising but do not guarantee or ensure improved achievement for underserved students (Lubienski, 2000; Secada, 1995). Content and/or curriculum based initiatives are also promising for improved mathematics outcomes for Black and Latino/a secondary students, but issues of uniform quality, access and equity often impede their effectiveness (Allexsaht-Snider & Hart, 2001; Darling-Hammond, 2004).
Tackling the problem of Black and Latino/a students' mathematics underachievement in secondary school entails that schools re-consider how they structure mathematics learning opportunities and requires more than enrichment or remediation programs or curricular changes. It is important to provide support for high mathematics performance for all students early, before they are in the latter years of secondary school. Further, addressing the problem of underachievement requires that we consider that students can be positive agents for their own learning and view them as knowledgeable contributors to their own success (Moses & Cobb, 2001). Too much of the discourse about what to do about Latino/as and African Americans and mathematics achievement focuses on those who fail, rather than those who are successful in mathematics. How can schools--even those schools where the average mathematics performance of students is poor--build on the experiences and behaviors of successful students to spur improved mathematics outcomes?
Critically addressing these problems requires that teachers and other school adults rethink their notions of who can do mathematics (Walker, 2003). Many have advocated for critical changes in teacher education programs, saying that they do not adequately prepare teachers to teach in diverse environments, particularly in urban settings where Black and Latino/a students are represented. In these environments, teachers' limited understanding of their students and their negative perceptions and expectations may impede their effectiveness (Groulx, 2001; Jamar & Pitts, 2005). …