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Viewpoint | African-American Children Are Brilliant in Mathematics



by Dr. Kirk Kirkwood, Ed.D.


African-American Children Are Brilliant in Mathematics: Why Don't the Numbers Agree?

Unfortunately, African-American K-12 students have become familiar with the achievement gap narrative, suggesting there are disparities in their ability to learn math compared to their non-African-American peers. Further, they are more likely to be taught by underprepared teachers who often struggle with Mathematics Common Core Standards, specifically how to teach the content in a relevant and engaging way.

Many African-American students arrive home from school seeking additional mathematics support. They often encounter parents/caregivers who have developed a phobia (and trauma) around mathematics due to similar classroom experiences. In some regards, African-American communities perceive an inherent deficiency in math abilities, specifically in the K-12 context—this is absolutely untrue.

Although a year-end mathematics assessment does not indicate a students' capacity to succeed in college or life, it provides some insight into how formalized K-12 classroom settings support them. Among all subgroups (e.g., Asian, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, Two or More Races), African-American fourth and eighth-graders performed the lowest in mathematics National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as the Nation's Report Card).



The overall score equates to below basic level of understanding of mathematical content. If these patterns continue, roughly 80% of African-American students attending public schools will require some form of intervention to succeed in entry-level college coursework after high school.

It is essential to note implicit biases in curricula developed primarily by white males who have little to no connection with the students reading their textbooks. Year-end assessments (including how questions are framed), emphasizing individual knowledge rather than collective/collaborative efforts to engage the content, continue to baffle African-American students. Furthermore, instructional practices are often mundane and offer minimal enjoyable moments.

Collectively, we can shift the paradigm for African-American students.

Math classrooms have become hostile learning spaces. African-American K-12 learners resent their teachers, loathe the subject matter, and look forward to activities and courses to thrive and realize how the content can be beneficial for them both now and in the future. So, how do we revisit and begin to reconceptualize how African-American children perceived their mathematical abilities?

As African-American students experience math, parents/caregivers, communities, and schools must acknowledge (repeatedly) that African-American students are brilliant. They deserve constant encouragement and a reminder of their rich history with mathematics.

The first mathematicians were African. Northern Africans created the first innovative mathematical tool (the Ishango Bone), Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan (African-American women featured in the movie Hidden Figures) elevated NASA to innovative technological advancements unseen.

Parents/caregivers, communities, and schools must collaborate to empower students to realize their gifts. Robert Moses, the Algebra Project creator, adopted the 1960s political community organizing a framework to promote mathematics literacy for students. It involved a collective response to an emerging challenge; therefore, he offered a practical guide to mathematics, including manipulatives, games, and drumming to engage students in math learnings.

Games such as Dominoes, Spades, and Uno are favorites among African-American families, and they require advanced Number Sense. Why not have a game night to showcase how parents/caregivers have thrived in these activities. Additionally, fantasy leagues, e.g., points per game, rebounds per game, assist, and free throws, provide enjoyable opportunities to showcase the appreciation of numbers.

In collaboration with Drs. Ernest Black, Fred Uy, and Patrice Waller, the California State University system, and CalStateTEACH have developed a Math Literacy Project to support Elementary School teachers' efficacy and ability to offer students culturally rich learning opportunities. Currently, partnering with over 200 educators at ISANA Academies to enhance their math instructional practice. The outcome will lead to African-American students' greater affinity and appreciation of math.

Collectively, we can shift the paradigm for African-American students.

They are too gifted and precious to allow the disdain for math to continue. Let's take action, strengthen our resolve, and become active in our intent to support them. If we let them down, we face an uncertain future. However, if we lean in to ensure that they are empowered, the Hidden Figures of the past will rise again as conscientious contributors of a math affirming environment for African-American children.

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Dr. Kirk Kirkwood is the Southern California Regional Director of CalStateTEACH, the California State University System's statewide credential program. He is also Executive Director at Village Life Education. He earned his PhD in P – 12 Educational Leadership from California State University, Fullerton.


Photo by Matthew Henry/Burst
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