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It Doesn't Add up: African American Students' Mathematics Achievement

Author(s): Gloria Ladson-Billings

Source: Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, Vol. 28, No. 6, Equity, Mathematics
Reform, and Research: Crossing Boundaries in Search of Understanding (Dec., 1997), pp. 697-
Published by: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
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Journalfor Researchin MathematicsEducation
1997, Vol. 28, No. 6, 697-708

It Doesn't Add Up: African American

Students' Mathematics Achievement

GloriaLadson-Billings,Universityof Wisconsin-Madison

Mathematicseducationhas beenheraldedfor its leadershiprole in theU.S. school

reformeffort (Stein, Grover,& Henningsen,1996; Grant,Peterson,& Shojgreen-
Downer, 1996). Prominentin the reformof mathematicseducationis the call for
studentsnot merelyto memorizeformulasandrulesandapplyproceduresbutrather
to engagein theprocessesof mathematical thinking,thatis, to do whatmathematicians
and otherprofessionalusers of mathematicsdo. The revampedmathematicsedu-
cationprogramis basedon engagingstudentsin problemposing andproblemsolv-
ing ratherthanon expectingrotememorization andconvergentthinking.Thesechanges
in mathematicseducationsuggestthatmathematicsteachingmustbuildon students'
learningand on theirabilityto pose and solve problemspreviouslyconsideredtoo
difficultfor theirage-gradelevels (Carpenter& Fennema,1988;Fennema,Franke,
Carpenter,& Carey, 1993).
Despite the much talked about changes in mathematics education, African
Americanstudentscontinueto performpoorlyin schoolmathematics(Secada,1992).
Some have arguedthatAfricanAmericanchildren'spoormathematicsperformance
is the resultof a discontinuitythatexists between students'home languageandthe
perceived"precision"of mathematicsandmathematical language(Orr,1987).Others
have suggestedthatthe contentof school mathematicsis so divorcedfromstudents'
everydayexperiencesthatit appearsirrelevant(Tate,1994).However,few have sit-
uated the mathematicsperformanceof AfricanAmericanstudentsinto the larger
contextof mathematics teachingandlearningin U.S. schools.Thisdiscussionattempts
to do just that and suggests some directionfor furtherresearchon the mathemat-
ics performanceof AfricanAmericanstudents.

Some may ask, why focus on AfricanAmericanstudents?The telling statistics
on the life chances of AfricanAmericanssuggest that wheneverwe can improve
the schooling experiencesfor AfricanAmericanstudents,we have an opportunity
to reversetheir life chances. A disturbingpercentageof AfricanAmericanmales
are involved with the criminal justice system (Miller, 1997). More African
Americanmales arein jail thanin college,' andtoday, for the first time in our his-
tory,moreAfricanAmericanmalesthanWhitesarein jail (ibid.).AfricanAmerican
studentsare 2 to 5 times more likely to be suspended(and at a youngerage) than

'The totalnumberof AfricanAmericaninmates(includesall ages) exceeds the totalAfricanAmerican

male college population,which is primarilybetween the ages 18 and 25.
698 AfricanAmericanStudents'MathematicsAchievement

Whitestudents(CamegieCorporation of America,1984/85).Thedropoutrateforurban,
inner-cityAfricanAmericanyouthis 36%andrising(Whitaker,1988).Andalthough
graduationfromhigh school is no guaranteeof success in life, a life withouta high
school diplomais almostcertainto be unsuccessful-economically and socially.
In the 1950s and 1960s civil rightsleadersdeclaredliteracyto be the key to full
citizenshipforAfricanAmericans(Morris,1984).If AfricanAmericanscouldbecome
literatetheycouldnotbe deniedthefranchisein thosesouthernstatesthathadimposed
literacytestsas a conditionfor voting.Theycouldbeginto readanddiscernfor them-
selvesthepoliticalpracticesthatcouldleadto liberation.Muchlike the workof Paulo
Freire(1970), these efforts towardincreasedliteracyfor AfricanAmericanswere
infusedwith notionsof developing"criticalconsciousness"-an abilityto readboth
the world and the word.
Today, in the 1990s, Bob Moses, one of the stalwartsof the civil rights move-
ment, has arguedthatmathematicalliteracyrepresentsthe "new"civil rightsbat-
tleground(Jetter,1993). Moses assertsthatbecause of the crucialrole of algebra
as a curriculargatekeeper,urbanstudentscannotcontinueto be trackedout of it;
in the currentarrangementof the curriculum,access to higherlevel mathematics,
beginningwith algebra,can meanincreasededucationalandeconomicopportunity
for students.

The Cultureof the U.S. and the Cultureof Mathematics

Althoughthis discussion is focused on AfricanAmericanstudents'mathemat-
ics achievement,it is importantto situateit in thelargercontextof mathematicsteach-
ing andlearningin the U.S. The ThirdInternational MathematicsandScienceStudy
(TIMSS)(U.S. Office of Education, 1996 ) revealed thatU.S. school childrencon-
tinue to lag behind studentsin otherhighly technologicalnationsin mathematics
and science achievement.The reasonsfor these lags aremultiple-teachers with-
out adequatepreparationin mathematicsand science, unimaginativeapproachesto
teaching, teacher misassignment,poorly constructedtextbooks. But it is more
thanwhathappensin ourclassroomsthatcontributes to thecreationof a mathematically
illiterateculture.Mathematicsfunctionsas a fearedandreveredsubjectin ourcul-
ture.We fear it because we believe thatit is too hard,andwe revereit becausewe
believe thatit signals advancedthinkingreservedonly for the intelligentsia.
Oursis a nationwhere no one would readily admitto being unableto read,but
many proclaimwith pridetheirinabilityto balance theircheckbooksor compute
the amountof intereston a loan. Not knowinghow to reador writecarriesa stigma
across race, class, and genderlines. People who cannotread and write attemptto
mask thatfact by using a variety of strategies.They pretendthatthey cannot see
withouttheireyeglasses. They rely on theirmemoriesto pretendto readwhatthey
have heardmanytimesbefore,or they graspat contextclues to makemeaningfrom
the meaninglesssquiggles on signs and paper.
Contrastthis behaviorwith thatof people in our society who strugglewith math-
ematics.As Stevensonreported(1992),Asianparentsattributed theirstudents'math-
ematicsfailureto lackof effort,whereasU.S. parentsweremorelikelyto suggestthat
Gloria Ladson-Billings 699

theirchildren'spoormathematics performance was attributable

to a lackof innateabil-
ity. In the U.S. is founda culturalbelief thateitherone "hasit" or does not when it
comes to mathematicalability,andthe way to "getit"is throughgeneticinheritance.
As previously stated,it is acceptablein our society to be mathematicallyinept.
Although hardlyanyone will admitto being unableto read and write, Americans
often matterof factly commenton theirlimitedmathematicsskills. Mathematical
ability has come to be associated with "nerdiness"or "geekyness."Ourcultural
portrayals of the mathematically adept are White males with horn-rimmed
glasses and plastic pocket protectors.These images do not promptour children
to embrace mathematicsas a field of study or a necessary skill. This distortion
and mystificationof mathematicsand its uses have contributedto our positioning
it as unattainable(and undesirable).
We also have to understandthatas oureconomy has changed,so has the role of
mathematics (and science) teachers. Formerly, a high school education and a
workethic could allow one to find reasonableemploymentandprovidefor oneself
andone's family.In today'smorebifurcatedeconomy,peopleareeitherhighlyedu-
cated (or skilled) or poorly educated(andunskilled).In the earlierera, mathemat-
ics teacherswere chargedwith using theirsubjectareaas a curriculumsieve, sifting
andwinnowingto select the top studentsto go on to highermathematics.In ourcur-
renthighly technological,globaleconomy, few Americanscan affordto be left out
of high-level mathematics.Thus, today's mathematicsteachersmust conceive of
theirsubjectareanot as a sieve but as a net thatgathersin more andmore students.
This paradigmaticshifthas been difficultfor ourstudentsas a whole, butit has been
particularlydifficult for AfricanAmericanstudents.
But some people do well in mathematicsin our society. Why? Certainly,indi-
vidual differences exist that cannot be easily generalized to explain mathemat-
ical abilities. However, statistically we can see whole-group patternsthat may
suggest some tendencies. White middle-class male studentstypically do well in
mathematics,as do some groups of studentsof Asian descent. Is there anything
aboutthe cultureof mathematicsthatis compatiblewith Whitemiddle-classmale
students' culture and experiences? Is there anything about White middle-class
male students' culturethat makes it compatiblewith mathematicsas it is taught
in our schools?
Mathematicsteaching in our schools emphasizes repetition;drill; convergent,
right-answerthinking;and predictability.2Studentsare asked to performsimilar
tasks over and over. They are rarelyasked to challenge the "rules"of mathemat-
ics. They are rarelyasked how theirpriorknowledge and experiencemight sup-
portor conflictwith school mathematics.Middle-classculturedemandsefficiency,
consensus,abstraction,andrationality.These featuresof the cultureareinherently
neither good nor bad. However, they may reflect the experiences and under-
standingsof one segmentof oursociety.BoykinandToms (1985) suggestthatsome

2Thisdescriptionof currentmathematicspracticeis not reflectiveof those school programsthathave

adoptedthe recommendedNCTM curriculumStandards.
700 AfricanAmericanStudents'MathematicsAchievement

featuresof African Americanculturalexpression3include rhythm,orality, com-

munalism,spirituality,expressive individualism,social time perspective,verve,
and movement. Once again, there is nothinginherentlygood or bad aboutthese
culturalfeatures.However,these kindsof culturalexpressionareneitherreinforced
nor representedin school mathematics.Further,school mathematicscurriculum,
assessment,andpedagogyareoftenclosely alignedwith an idealizedculturalexpe-
rience of the White middle class (Cohen, 1982; Joseph, 1987; Romberg, 1992) .
Moreover,this problemis subtleand difficult to diagnose (see e.g., Silver, Smith,
& Nelson, 1995; Tate, 1995).

Beyond SurfaceDifferences
But students'social context is not alone in having an impacton students'math-
ematicsachievement.The relationshipbetweenmathematicsandculturecontinues
to be deciphered.There are those who suggest thatmathematicsis "culturefree"
and that it does not matter who is "doing" mathematics;the tasks remain the
same. But these arepeople who do not understandthe natureof cultureandits pro-
found impacton cognition (Cole, Gay, Glick, & Sharp,1971).
Culturerefersto the deep structuresof knowing,understanding, acting,andbeing
in the world.It informsall humanthoughtandactivityandcannotbe suspendedas
humanbeingsinteractwithparticular subjectmattersordomainsof learning.Itstrans-
missionis bothexplicitandimplicit.Thus,even thoughAfricanAmericanstudents
area partof almostevery social strataandtheirsocialcontextmay affectwhatexpe-
riences they have and how they view the world,theirculturalknowledge, expres-
sions, andunderstandings,which may be transmittedover many generations,may
share many features with African Americans across socioeconomic and geo-
Partof the deep structureof AfricanAmericancultureis an affinity for rhythm
and pattern.4African American artistic and physical expressions demonstrate
thesefeaturesin sophisticatedways. Jazz,gospel music,rap,poetry,basketball,ser-
monizing,dance,fashion-all reflect AfricanAmericaninfluencesof rhythmand
pattern.But these influencesarerarelyconnectedto any mathematicalfoundations.
I am not suggestingthatwe should "mathematize"5 all culturalexpressions,such
as artandmusic, but ratherthatit may be importantto help studentssee the math-
ematicallinks thatexist between what they know and appreciate.
School mathematicsis presentedin ways that are divorcedfrom the everyday

31 do not meanto implythatthereis one monolithicAfricanAmericanculture.However,

as Nobles (1986) andBoykin andToms (1985) have identifiedfeaturesextantin AfricanAmericancul-
turalexpressionthatappearwith regularitythroughoutAfricanAmericancommunities.
4It is importantthat this notion not be read as the stereotypical"all Black people got rhythm."
Instead,whatI am suggestinghereis thatrhythmicexpressionsin music, dance,art,andso on, arecon-
sistentlyvalued andreinforcedin AfricanAmericanculturalexpression.Individualswithinthe culture
may have no particularlyrhythmicskills or interests.
"5The termmathematizeis used to explain the practiceof quantifyingnonmathematicalphenomena.
See Putnam,Lampert,and Peterson(1990).
GloriaLadson-Billings 701

experiences of most students, not just African American students. Thus, poor
mathematicsperformance in theU.S. cutsacrossculturalgroups.But some disturbing
patternsaboutthe performanceof AfricanAmericanstudentsneed to be examined.
Oakeset al. (1990) foundthatlow-incomeAfricanAmericanstudentsaremorelikely
to be clusteredin low-abilitymathematicsclasses. As a school's AfricanAmerican
enrollmentincreases,the proportionof classes identifiedas high abilitydiminishes.
Schools whereAfricanAmericanstudentsconstitutethe majorityhave less exten-
sive and less demandingmathematicsprogramsand offer fewer opportunitiesfor
students to take such gatekeeper courses as algebra and calculus that lead to
increasedopportunitiesat the college level andbeyond. Oakes andher colleagues
also foundthatschools with high concentrationsof AfricanAmericanstudentstend
to have fewer teachersjudged to be highly qualifiedin mathematics.

Teachingfor High Performancein Mathematics

Althoughmuchof thisdiscussionhas dealtwiththeway mathematicsis constructed
andregardedin the U.S., I would be remiss if I did not addressthe notion of ped-
agogy. It is with changednotionsof pedagogythatI believe we have the best oppor-
tunityfor changingthe achievementlevels of AfricanAmericanstudents.My work
hasfocusedon successfulteachersof AfricanAmericanstudents(e.g.,Ladson-Billings,
1994, 1995).The workof suchteachersis in high relieffromthatof whatHaberman
(1991) calls "thepedagogy of poverty."This pedagogy of poverty includes such
routineteaching acts as "giving information,asking questions,giving directions,
makingassignments, monitoringseatwork,reviewingassignments,givingtests,review-
ing tests, assigning homework, reviewing homework, settlingdisputes,punishing
noncompliance,markingpapers,andgiving grades"(p. 290). Habermanpointsout
thattakenseparatelythese actsmightseem "normal."However,"takentogetherand
performedto the systematicexclusion of otheracts, they have become the peda-
gogical coin of the realm in urbanschools" (p. 291).
Further,Habermansuggeststhatthe pedagogyof povertyappealsto severalcon-
stituencies (p. 291). Below I elaborate on his list of to whom this pedagogy
appeals and make some connectionsto mathematicsteachingand learning:
It appealsto thosewhothemselvesdid notdo well in school.Too manyof theteach-
ers assignedto urbanclassroomsfail to enjoy intellectualpursuits.Theirown work
in school was mediocre,andteachingwas a choice of convenienceratherthanone
of informedandreflectivedecisionmaking.These teacherstypicallywere not good
mathematicsstudents,and theirorientationto mathematicsis as a rule-governed,
Itappealsto thosewhorelyoncommonsenseratherthanon thoughtfiul analysis.Teachers
who practicethiskindof pedagogyaremorelikelyto suggestthatstudentsneedto learn
or do somethingbecausethatis the way they learnedor did it. Ratherthanmakecur-
decisionson thebasisof empiricalresearchora systematicstudy
of students'classroomperformances, theydo what"feels"right.Thus,strictlyfollowing
the mathematicstextbookandcompletingproblemsets becometherule.
702 Achievement

It appeals to those whofear people of color and thepoor and who have a need
for control. It is interesting to walk into schools or classrooms thought to be
"good"urbanclassrooms.Often, what makes them "good"is thatthey areunnat-
urallyquiet.Teachersandadministrators sometimesbecome so consumedwith the
notion thatAfricanAmericanchildrenmust be managedthatthey forget thatthey
need to be taught.Maintainingorderand keeping childrenundercontrolbecome
thepreoccupationof the teachersHabermandescribes.Thatordermaybe bestmain-
tainedby, in these teachers'view, giving studentsmundane,routinemathematics
tasks thatdo not invite much discussion and contestation.
It appeals to thosewho have low expectationsfor childrenof color and thepoor.
As was previouslymentioned,a notionprevailsin Americanculturethatacademic
excellenceis a resultof geneticgood fortune.Thisconcept-that some students"have
it"whereasothersdo not-is particularlyperniciouswhen directedtowardAfrican
Americanstudents.Teacherswho presumethatbecause studentsare of a particu-
larraceor ethnicitytheycannotbe expectedto performat high levels in mathematics
fail to present those students with a challenging, intellectually rigorous math-
ematicscurriculum.Instead,theirmathematicscurriculumis bestdescribedas overly
directiveand controlling.
It appealsto thosewhodo notknowthefull rangeof availablepedagogicaloptions
available.It standsto reasonthatif teachershavenotperformed well in school,approach
teachingunsystematically, fear theirstudents, and hold low expectationsfor them,
they are likely also to possess a limited teachingrepertoire.Calling on past (bad)
practices, these teachers tend to reproducethe kind of unimaginative,stiflingped-
agogy that has failed to serve students of color for many years. Theirclassrooms
arenot unlike thatdescribedby Ayers (1992, p. 259):
Visitinga fourth-grade class,I wasgreetedbytheteacher."Welcome to ourclass,"she
said."I'mon page307 of themathtext,exactlywhereI'm supposedto be according
to boardguidelines."
Therewasnotmuchgoingon-two studentswereasleep,severalwerelookingout
thewindow,a fewwerereadingtheirmathbooks.I discovered laterthatvirtually
student intheclasswasfailingmath.Butthisteacherwasdoingherjob,movingthrough
thesetcurriculum, dutifullydeliveringthematerial, passingoutthegrades.If thestu-
In contrastto this pedagogy of poverty,I have had the pleasureof workingwith
teacherswho enacteda culturallyrelevantpedagogy.I have documentedtheirwork
in a numberof places (Ladson-Billings,1994, 1995). However,in keepingwith an
emphasison mathematics, I wantto talkabouthow one teacher,whomI call Margaret
Rossi, developed a pedagogy designed to ensurehigh mathematicalachievement
among AfricanAmericanstudents.
MargaretRossi is anItalianAmericanwomanin hermid-40s.She beganherteach-
ing careerin the late 1960s as a Dominicannun.She has taughtstudentsin bothpri-
vateandpublicschools,fromWhitewealthycommunitiesto low-incomecommunities
of color.Duringthe study,shewasteachingsixthgradein a working-class,low-income,
predominantlyAfrican American school district. Although regarded as a strict
Gloria Ladson-Billings 703

teacher,she knew that studentsrespectedher for being demandingyet caring.

Mathematicsin Margaret'sclass was a nonstopaffair.She spentlittleorno time on
classroomroutineslike takingroll,collectinglunchmoney,ordealingwithclassroom
management. classroomwasalwaysbusy.Althoughherstudentswereengaged
in problemsolvingusingalgebraicfunctions,no worksheetswerehandedout,no prob-
lem sets were assigned.The students,as well as Margaret,posedproblems.
Froma pedagogicalstandpoint,I saw Margaretmakea pointof gettingevery stu-
dent involvedin the mathematicslesson. She continuallyassuredstudentsthatthey
were capableof masteringthe problems.They cheeredeach otheron andcelebrated
when they were able to explainhow they arrivedat theirsolutions.Margaret'stime
and energy were devoted to mathematics.
Margaretmoved aroundthe classroomas studentsposedquestionsand suggested
solutions. She often asked, "How do you know?" to push students' thinking.
When studentsaskedquestions,Margaretwas quickto say, "Whoknows?Who can
help him out here?" Margarethelped her students understandthat they were
knowledgeableandcapableof answeringquestionsposed by themselves and oth-
ers. However,Margaretdid not shrinkfromherown responsibilityas teacher.From
time to time she workedindividuallywith studentswho seemedpuzzledor confused
aboutthe discussion. By asking a series of probingquestions,Margaretwas able
to help studentsorganizetheirthinkingabouta problemanddeveloptheirown prob-
lem-solvingstrategies.Thebusyhumof activityin Margaret'sclassroomwas directed
All of Margaret'sstudentsparticipatedin algebra,even thoughit was beyondwhat
the district'scurriculumrequiredfor sixth grade.Margaretscroungedan old set of
algebrabooks from the district'sbook closet andexemptedno one fromthe rigors
of theclass.Oneof Margaret's studentswasdesignateda specialneedsstudent.However,
Margaretdeterminedthatwith a few accommodationsthe studentcould remainin
the classroomandbenefitfromher instruction.Jamesperformedwell in the class-
room. He participatedin class discussions, posed problems as well as solved
them,andacceptedhelp fromclassmateswhenhe struggled.By the end of the year,
Margarethad convinced the principalthatJameshad no need for services outside
the classroom.
Althoughit is interestingto hearMargaret'sstory,it is moremeaningfulto under-
stand her practice as a heuristic for solving the problem of poor mathematics
achievementamong AfricanAmericanstudents.Some of the tentativeprinciples
we can extrapolatefrom her teachingfollow.
Studentstreatedas competentare likelyto demonstratecompetence.Muchof the
literatureon teacherexpectationsof studentachievementhelps us understandthat
when teachersbelieve in students'abilities, the studentsare likely to be success-
ful. Conversely,when teachersbelieve thatbecause of theirrace, social class, or
personaleconomic situationsstudentsmay not be intellectuallyable, studentper-
formance(andhow it is assessed) confirmsthose beliefs. Margarettreatedall stu-
dents as if they were intellectuallyexceptional.She expected all of the studentsto
performat high levels of competence-and they did.
704 AfricanAmericanStudents'Mathematics

Providinginstructionalscaffoldingfor studentsallowsstudentsto movefrom what

theyknowto what theydo not know.Ratherthanworryover what studentsdid not
know,Margaretdemonstratedthe possibilityof using the students'priorknowledge
as a bridgeto new learning.She instructedher studentsnot to allow organization
of tests or texts to distractor confuse them.She reassuredthemthattheypossessed
key strategiesfor solving a varietyof problems.
Themajorfocus of the classroommustbe instructional.Margaretmadeefficient
use of her class time. Fromthe momentthe studentsenteredthe classroomuntilthe
timetheyweredismissedforrecess,theywereengagedin mathematics.Additionally,
Margaretwas engagedin mathematicsinstructiontheentiretime.She didnot attempt
to occupy the studentswith busy work. Instead,she was committedto the acade-
mic success of each studentand accompaniedeach one on the instructionaljour-
ney. Knowing that she was right therewith them gave the studentsthe assurance
thattheirprogresswouldbe monitoredandthattheywouldneverbe allowedto stray
too far off the instructionalpath.
Real educationis about extendingstudents'thinkingand abilities beyondwhat
theyalreadyknow.MargaretRossi's decisionto teachhersixthgradersalgebraeven
whenit was notmandatedby herdistrict'scurriculum was a consciouseffortto demon-
strateto the studentsthatthey had the capacityto learnandperformat higherand
more sophisticatedlevels thanhad been demandedof them previously.Insteadof
attempting to maintain the students at low levels of academic performance,
Margaretprovidedchallengingcontentfor all the students.
Effectivepedagogical practice involves in-depthknowledgeof studentsas well
as of subjectmatter.Thereis no disputingthateffective teachersmust be knowl-
edgeable about content. Additionally, Shulman (1987) suggests that beyond a
knowledgeof theirvariouscontentareas,teachersmustknow how thatknowledge
is best taught. Other researchersargue that teachers who are successful with
diverselearnersalsoareableto cultivateandmaintainstronginterpersonal
with their students(Foster, 1992).
SpindlerandSpindler(1982) reportedthatteachers,perhapsunconsciously,favor
those studentswhom they perceive to be most like them. This partialitytakes the
form of attendingmore to these students,valuing theirresponsesmore, and eval-
uatingtheirperformancesmorefavorably.If teachersareto be moreeffective with
African American students, they must develop a positive identification with
them--to perceivethemto be like them, thatis, fully humanandpossessing enor-
mous intellectualcapacity.

Filling the Research Void-"Complex Situations"

One of the ways researchersmightdevelop researchagendasthatrespondto the
need of classroomteachersandtheirstudentsto improvemathematicsperformance
is to understandthetheoreticalchallengeof thiswork.A typicalresponseto theseissues
is to functionin a crisis-managementmode-looking for ways to repairseemingly
Gloria Ladson-Billings 705

irreparableclassroom situations.I suggest here that a betterway to addressthese

problemsis to developmorepowerfultheoreticalrubricsfor makingsense of class-
room practicesand studentperformances.Two importantheuristicsfor creatinga
"wayof seeing"whatis happeningin mathematicsclassroomsarefoundin the work
of Lave and Wenger (1991) and Waldrop(1992). The formergives us an under-
standingof the situatednatureof learning,or situatedcognition. The latterhelps
us develop notions of complexity. Together,they might be thoughtof as a theory
of "complex situations."
Situatedcognitionsuggeststhatindividualsdo not learnthingsin a vacuum.Rather,
learningoccursin socialcontexts.Thekindsof mathematicslearningthatindividuals
do can be highly specific. Fasheh(1990) speaksof his mother'sunderstandingof
patternbecause of her work as a quilter.Similarly,when teachingadultsto readin
the southduringthe 1950s and 1960s, Clark(Clark,1990) relied primarilyon her
students'desires to gain employment,readand studythe Bible, andparticipatein
the politicalprocessas sourcesof readingmotivationinsteadof tryingto teachrudi-
mentsof sound-symbol Thus,successin mathematics
relationships. forAfricanAmerican
studentsmay need to be deeplyembeddedin theireverydaycontexts.Insteadof sur-
face connections,such as changingthe names of storyproblemcharacters,teach-
ers will need to understandthe deep structuresof studentsexperiences.6This may
mean doing some thingswith studentsthatlook very "unmathlike"--interviewing
them,havingthemwriteautobiographies, discussingtheirinterests.To be successful
at moving from students'lives and intereststo meaningfulmathematics,teachers
themselves will have to be very knowledgeable in mathematics.The work of
Smithand Stiff (1993) illustratesthis technique.Underthe pressof a statemandate
for algebrafor all students,they createda series of vignettesconnectedto students'
interestsin which they embeddedthe basics of algebra.Theirtechniquecalled for
involvingstudentsin thesehigh-intereststoriesuntilstudents'interestwaned.When
the interestdissipated,a new storywas begun.Theirabilityto move from storyto
storywas linked to theirknowledge of mathematics.They could (anddid) embed
the algebraicconcepts and problemsin any story. However, it was the interestin
the storythatkept the studentsengaged.This techniqueis importantin light of the
pushto createhigh-technologyprogramsfor mathematicslearning.Theseprograms
necessarilymustchoose some context,buttheymaynot choosethe "right"contexts.7
In additionto situatingthe teachingof mathematicsin relevantstudentcontexts,
we need to recognizethathumancontextsor systemsarenecessarilycomplex.Casti
(1994) andWaldrop(1992), constructorsof "complexitytheory,"suggestthatphe-
nomena (or tasks) arenot just "complicated,"they are "complex."The classroom

6Knowingthese deep structuresgoes beyond readinggeneraldescriptionsof a cultureto becoming

a "student"of the specific individualswe teach.
7Forexample, my daughter'smiddle school mathematicsclass participatedin the highly acclaimed
"JasperWoodburySeries"createdas a partof VanderbiltUniversity's School for Thoughtprogram.
Although she completedthe assignments,throughoutthe study she complainedthat she was not par-
ticularlyinterestedin Jasperandhis problems.The SmithandStiff (1993) projectrequiresthatthe prob-
lems emanatefrom studentsin the classroom.
706 AfricanAmericanStudents'MathematicsAchievement

is a complicatedplace. But complicatedphenomenaand tasks typically can be

reducedto the sumof theirparts,whereascomplexsystems(e.g.,humanbeings,com-
munities,schools,andclassrooms)are"moredynamic,moreunpredictable, morealive"
(Davis& Sumara,1997,p. 117).Thus,classroomsarebothcomplicatedandcomplex.
Waldrop(1992) assertsthatcomplex systems have threedistinguishingcharac-
teristics.Firstthey have the capacityto undergospontaneousself-organization,in
theprocessof somehowmanagingto transcend themselves.Forexample,in theprocess
of solving a mathematicsproblem,individualstudentsmight contributedifferent
ideas thathelp createa rubricor strategyfor solving the problemthatno one stu-
dent would have developedindependently.Second,complex systemsareadaptive.
Whetherthey be species, marketplaces,or individualorganisms(or classrooms),
theyall changewithinchangingenvironments(Davis& Sumara,1997).Thus,a class-
roomwithina dysfunctionalschool can be highly effective, as was truein the class-
rooms of the teachersI studied(Ladson-Billings,1994). This is not to suggest that
we should discourage systemic change; rather,the lack of schoolwide reform
shouldnot precludeindividualteachersfrom developingeffective practicewithin
the system.Third,complexsystemsarequalitativelydifferentfrommechanicalsys-
tems (e.g., cars,computers),which are"merelycomplicated"(Davis & Sumara,p.
118). One can understandcomplicatedsystemsby analyzingeach of its component
parts.This analysis can make the system predictableand rule governed.Contrast
the classroomtells the teacherlittle aboutthe dynamicof the classroom(system).
Yet, thatis oftenpreciselythe approachwe take.It is importantto know andunder-
standthe individualsin the classroom,butit is equallyimportantto understandhow
the groupfunctionsand how individualsrelateto, and functionwith, the group.
Perhapsby meldingnotionsof situatedcognitionwith complexitytheorywe can
provideteachersandresearcherswitha differenttypeof lens throughwhichto under-
standthe classroomand a differenttype of tool to improveit. If we understandthat
the multiplecontextsin which studentslive theirlives have a varietyof effects on
the class system, we might begin to createthe kinds of mathematicscurriculaand
pedagogythattakefull advantageof the adaptive,resilient,complexnatureof learn-
ers in a classroom.Ratherthanpresumethatbecauseof theirrace,culture,ethnicity,
language,or otherformof differencestudentsareunableto succeedin mathematics,
this lens might force us to ask how the mathematicswe are teaching(andhow we
teachit) is changingthe system.How mightwe constructmathematicslearningsit-
uationsthatimprovethe system?Whenwe lookat otheraspectsof thecurriculawhere
studentsmay be experiencingsuccess, whatcan we discoveraboutcertainaspects
of learningthatwork well in a classroomsystem?
Certainly enough literature documents the mathematics failure of African
Americanstudents.Whatis lackingis the documentationof successfulpracticeof
mathematics for African American students. The challenge of improving the
mathematicalperformanceof AfricanAmericanstudentsmustbe fought on three
fronts:programmatic,personal,and political. Programmatically,we must partic-
ipate in the developmentof meaningfuland challengingcurricula.Personally,we
Gloria Ladson-Billings 707

must come to develop caringandcompassionaterelationshipswith students-rela-

tionshipsbornof informedempathy,not sympathy.Politically,we mustunderstand
thatourfutureas a people is directlytied to ourchildren'sabilityto makethe most
of theireducation-to use it not merely for theirown economic gain andpersonal
aggrandizement,butratherfor a restructuring of an inequitable,unjustsociety. Our
students have immeasurabletalents and innumerable strengths.Thatthey do not do
well in school in generaland in mathematicsin particularjust does not add up.


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Gloria Ladson-Billings, Associate Professor,CurriculumandInstruction,Universityof Wisconsin-
Madison,225 N. Mills Street,Madison,WI 53706