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Raising Minority Student Math Achievement in High School: Part 1 of 3

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

This is a 3-part series from Pear Math Instructional Coach Rich Kaplan. Rich believes that educators have a wonderful opportunity to change students’ lives and teach students that, with hard work, they all have the capacity to be successful. While Rich’s experience and efforts have been with underrepresented minority students, he believes similar initiatives could qualitatively improve the math achievement of underperforming students of any background.

While research shows that some progress has been made in closing the racial achievement gap, there is still much work to be done. Many factors, including low expectations from teachers and students’ internalized low expectations of themselves, have been cited as just a couple of the reasons for this gap. I believe a major goal of schools and teachers needs to be to get students to believe that it is wonderful to strive for and achieve success.


"It is our message of high expectations to our youth that must prevail so that they internalize the message that success in math matters and is achievable."


My experiences as a math teacher for 12 years at Lake View High School in Chicago and for 18 years at Evanston Township High School tell a story of the vast potential of underrepresented minority students, of their real desire to develop and grow and learn, of the successful growth of programs in two very different Chicago-area high schools where lots of our students successfully took Advanced Placement Calculus and grew tremendously from this experience.

Lake View High School’s student population at the time was mostly made up of students of color. As an active participant in the College Preparatory Math Program (CPMP) based on the equity work of Uri Treisman through the University of Illinois Chicago, I played a leadership role (eventually as LVHS's math department chair) in building a culture where math teachers collectively inspired students. Teachers built an incredible amount of trust in each other sharing curricular ideas, as well as our successes and failures. We used a rigorous, contextual curriculum that focused both on skill building and problem solving long before the Common Core Standards’ requirements. We pushed students mathematically. We developed close, caring relationships with our students. Our efforts resulted in 40% of the senior class taking AP Calculus. This was up from 0% of the senior class taking AP Calculus in the immediate preceding years.

Evanston Township High School’s student population had a make up of about 50% white and 50% African-American and Latino students. The advanced math classes, however, did not reflect these numbers. When I started teaching at ETHS, fewer than 10 minority students were enrolled in AP Calculus classes that hosted a couple hundred students. Because ETHS had (and still has) a deep commitment to raising the achievement levels of underrepresented minority students, I initiated summer classes meant to increase the number of minority students eligible to take AP Calculus. The recruitment and success of these cohorts of students involved building among them a spirit and a sense that they could be successful learning math, should spend a summer taking an intensive math class, and should strive to take AP Calculus in high school. More than 100 African-American and Latino students have been enrolled in calculus classes for the past 14 years.

The transformation to high math achievement among our underrepresented minority students is possible. I have been witness to it. I have been in the trenches helping to make it happen. The achievement gap in your school or district between white students and students of color can be qualitatively reduced. It is our message of high expectations to our youth that must prevail so that they internalize the message that success in math matters and is achievable. With a willingness to make some course changes or additions, the dedication of teachers to reflect upon and alter their outlook and approaches with minority students, and some really hard work to shift instructional approaches, you can help students be successful.

Part 2 of this series includes more detail about those changes, compiled from observations in over 30 years of teaching math and of several years of observing and coaching math teachers who successfully shifted students’ perceptions of themselves as math learners.

If you are interested in learning more about raising the achievement of underperforming students in your school or district, please reach out to us to continue the dialogue.

Rich Kaplan taught high school mathematics for 30 years in both Chicago and Evanston, Illinois. He was awarded the T.E. Rine Award for Excellence in Secondary Mathematics Teaching in 2015 by the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics in recognition of his success in raising minority student achievement. He is currently a Pear School Solutions Math Instructional Coach, supporting teachers in effective math instructional practices. This series of posts is based on a presentation Rich made to the Metropolitan Math Club of Chicago in 2016.

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