Raising Minority Student Math Achievement in High School Part 3 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 two previous posts about raising minority student math achievement, I attest that closing the achievement gap is attainable and requires teachers, who have a lot of expertise, to take some action that is perhaps different from what they have already tried. In this third post, I offer an overview of the work that needs to be done by administrators in order for high schools and math departments to achieve qualitatively more success with students, in particular African-American and Latino students. After all, school administrators who are effective create a school climate where collaboration and high expectations are important.

Have conversations with teachers about their beliefs

Conduct discussions with teachers about their beliefs about changing the trajectory of the lives of students and about their ability as teachers to accomplish this. Direct conversations about racial attitudes may be too scary for teachers to have with administrators. So, base these discussions on the premise that every student can learn qualitatively more and focus on what teachers can do to help students accomplish that. Talking about their own strengths and weaknesses will help teachers uncover what supports they might need to tackle the identified obstacles. School leaders need to help teachers believe not only that students can achieve more, but also that teachers are smart enough and resourceful enough to help students do so.

Create a department/school plan

The administration must support and develop a structural department/school plan that would have, as its goal, increasing the number of minority students who were very successful. This plan would need to be both concrete and achievable. It might include creating and staffing summer math courses and/or designing alternative pathways to calculus.

Support the development of positive teacher/student/classroom relationships

Take on the transformative work of helping teachers develop really, really positive relationships with their students and classroom climates where students trust the teachers, work well with their fellow students, and are motivated to work hard at rigorous curriculum. Encourage and provide structures for professional learning communities of classroom teachers so that building these classroom relationships becomes something that teachers are conscious about, do creatively, and discuss with their colleagues. To really positively change the culture of their classrooms, teachers need to develop trusting relationships with the fellow teachers so that they can share their growth and their successes and failures in a non-judgemental and productive way.

Provide teachers with guidance and support

It’s likely that your teachers, who really do have a lot of expertise, will need guidance and support to be successful. The vulnerability that is required of teachers to change their approaches, to stumble in front of colleagues, and to be challenged on aspects of their worldview is immense. Without appropriate support in all aspects of teaching (including planning, curriculum choices, and instructional strategies), the efforts to make real change would likely be abandoned. The commitment to such an endeavor, then, must be deep and wide: all teachers and administrators with influence to make the program work need to be on board and there must be an understanding that change and progress take time.

The journey of a thousand miles

begins with one step.

- Lao Tzu

Improved mathematical success for underperforming students is possible. I’ve seen it happen and am proud to have been an agent of that change. The road is not straight, easy, or guaranteed, but the possibilities make the effort worth it. Our students deserve to be believed in, to have teachers who work hard on their behalf, and to have school administrators who create structures that will support their ambitions.

If you are interested in getting support in your efforts to improve student achievement in your school or district, it would be a great honor for me to walk with you on that incredibly important journey. 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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