Raising Minority Student Math Achievement in High School: Part 2 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.

In my last post, I recalled success stories about getting more minority students to take and succeed in calculus classes. I mentioned some changes that teachers can make that would positively affect the internal messages of minority students from the notion that intellectual achievement is something that is neither important nor achievable to the belief that it is wonderful and attainable.

In this installment, I offer more detail about those actions compiled from 30 years of teaching math, working collegially with colleagues, and coaching math teachers. Those who were able to shift students’ perceptions of themselves as successful math learners, and thus, increase student achievement in mathematics, took these actions:

1) Believed that students can do challenging and intellectually rigorous work. This sounds obvious and simple. IT’S NOT!!!! Many minority students, especially those in urban areas, have a plethora of issues (racism, poverty, chaotic families and lives, illness, crime, gangs, peer pressure, etc.) that make it difficult to focus successfully on academics. These problems make it really, really hard for teachers to maintain their beliefs that students can learn rigorous academic curriculum.

2) Motivated and inspired their students to achieve. While most math teachers would say they became teachers to do just that, it is easy to give up on students who have hard, chaotic lives. Who are alienated. Who have other priorities. Who misbehave. Who are bored with school. Who appear lazy. Our job as educators, however, is to help those students overcome roadblocks and to make learning meaningful. This requires a paradigm shift since too many teachers judge students negatively and give up on them.

3) Developed plans and programs, implemented them, and made it their mission to guarantee success. I cannot imagine a more intellectually challenging task than figuring out how to motivate and teach urban minority students high-level, rigorous curriculum. Human beings, however, solve really difficult problems by working collectively, being creative, being resourceful, being really smart, and working incredibly hard. The teachers known to have inspired students to achieve academically brought all of these attributes to their mission.

4) Developed close relationships with their students. Students need to know that we care about them as people. As Harvard professor and researcher Ronald Ferguson found out, referring particularly to black and Latino students, “A teacher’s demand [for hard work and achievement] may be understood as either friendly or hostile, depending upon whether the teacher is perceived as caring or not.” A teacher in a community-based program interviewed by Ferguson explained, “Once these kids know you care, they’ll walk through the walls for you.” Students need to know that teachers believe they can master rigorous curriculum. When students know that teachers they respect believe in them, students are more confident and will work harder and more productively.

5) Created safe and supportive learning environments. In safe and supportive classrooms, students are empowered to ask questions, work collectively, and celebrate hard work and success. Supportive teachers manage their classrooms so that behavioral issues do not interfere with the learning process. They do this in a strong and effective, but loving way where the personal dignity of students is maintained.

6) Taught in compelling ways that inspired students to fully engage in class. There are many different ways for a teacher to be compelling, but students need to be intrigued and interested. Boredom is the bane of a classroom. What makes a teacher compelling seems hard to quantify, but it has something to do with a teacher’s inner spirit and excitement of the subject matter and for the students. Compelling teaching involves a variety of instructional strategies. Compelling teaching involves humor and fun and the ability to enjoy and appreciate students and what goes on in the classroom.

7) Worked really hard at all aspects of teaching. Working hard includes developing lessons, explaining concepts, organizing and running the classroom, engaging students, building relationships with students, being there for students’ problems, grading, collaborating with other teachers, and brainstorming new ways of getting through to students. It is extremely important to get students to feel that their teachers are there for them. Particularly when we academically push students beyond everyone’s (including their own) expectations for them, students will doubt themselves and need regular academic support from a dedicated teacher.

8) Understood mathematics deeply. Effective teachers are really smart in their content areas. They are able to explain concepts clearly in many ways. They can develop lessons that take students from where they are academically to a higher level. They understand students’ questions, what students are really asking, and respond helpfully. They adjust their lessons on the spur of the moment, catch the teachable moment, and excite students with new academic insights. In any class, students have a wide range of abilities. It takes extraordinary content and teaching knowledge to be able to challenge and not overly frustrate students, to support students and not water-down the curriculum.

9) Collaborated with each other. Successful teachers build a high level of trust with each other so that they can provocatively and honestly discuss teaching issues in a way that moves student learning forward. Collaboration means openly discussing the ways in which socio-economic class and race issues affect students, schools, and teachers. Collaboration means discussing curriculum, instruction, pedagogy, and teacher-student relationships. Teachers who collaborate visit each other’s classes and discuss their successes and failures with the goal of collectively improving their teaching.

These actions, while effective, are not easy to accomplish. They take the perseverance of dedicated, intelligent, and authentic teachers who are supported by dedicated, intelligent, and authentic leaders. Throughout their own journeys, teachers need to experience success. Many teachers genuinely want to change students' lives. This work is extremely difficult. Students have lots of issue. Cynics and naysayers are everywhere. Teachers' efforts need to be supported and celebrated.

Supporting teachers’ efforts sounds simple, yet as most things presented in this series of ideas, it is not. Administrators need a roadmap, concrete ideas, and inspiration. In Part 3 of this series, I offer an overview of the work that I think needs to be done to transform teaching and learning to improve minority student achievement in high school mathematics.

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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