Home » math » who does well in my elementary algebra course: part 2 – race

who does well in my elementary algebra course: part 2 – race

[Want to see part 1 – gender?]

a few words about race

As far as I know, race is not a biological reality beyond the amount of melanin in the skin. I have never seen any evidence that I considered convincing that suggested different racial groups are more or less smart or talented or physically adept or any other difference. Every time someone claims to have found differences between races based on genetics, I can easily explain the differences through environmental factors such as socio-economic class, educational background, cultural differences, and the simple truth that groups with darker skin are systematically oppressed in our country. Therefore, whenever I see claims about biological differences between people, I look for the agenda of the researchers or their funders.

Now please don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that real biological differences between groups do not exist; such differences may in fact exist. However, I do not believe we can know if they exist or what they may be. Teasing apart what is a biological effect and what is an environmental effect is not only difficult, I believe it is impossible. Furthermore, claims about biological differences between peoples have historically led to justifications for all kinds of injustice: murder, rape, enslavement, and discrimination of all kinds. Because these negative effects, and because I have seen very few positive effects, from making such claims, I believe making assertions about any biology of race is irresponsible at best, but more likely malevolent and self-serving.

Nevertheless, the history of race-based oppression has shown that the idea of race has had, and continues to have, real consequences in the world. Race as a social construct is very real; it plays a role in the lives of everyone in the U.S. and probably the world.

With all this in mind, I wanted to know what, if any, correlations there were between the race of the students in my elementary algebra course and how they did in the course. By looking at this, I hope to understand more about how I teach and how I might improve so that students of all kinds can succeed at an equally high rate.

the caveats

1) I did not ask students to report their ethnic or racial background, so I am placing them according to my own perceptions;

2) The number of students in my class does not statistically large enough to prove anything; as such, my observations will be purely that: observations; I am simply watching events and drawing a few conclusions based on that; the conclusions I come to are purely my opinion and make no claim to scientific validity.

the data

Total students in my course: 44
African-Americans: 11 — 0 As, 2 Bs, 4 Cs, 1 D, 4 Fs
Latino/as: 11 — 2 As; 0 Bs; 7 Cs; 1 D, 1 F
Asians: 8 — 3 As, 1 B, 2 Cs, 1 D, 1 F
Whites: 13 — 4 As, 2 Bs, 2 Cs, 1 D, 4 Fs
Other: 1 — 1 A


It is very depressing and disturbing to note that only 54.5% of the African-Americans passed the course, while a combined 72.7% of all other groups passed. On other hand, it’s great to see that the highest passing percentage by racial group was that of the Latino/as: 81.8%.

A closer look at the distribution is more troubling. Whites, who made up only 29.5% of the class, got 40% of the As. Whereas African-Americans, 25% of the class, received no As. In addition, while two Latino/as did achieve As, seven of them received Cs—this is 46.7% of the Cs, even though Latino/as were only 25% of the class.

I am sure that other patterns can be seen in the data, but this is enough for me: there is a clear difference between the grades of the African-Americans and Latino/as and everyone else. For me this difference is a reason to take a long and critical look at what I’m doing and how I’m assigning grades.

It’s clear to me that all my students wanted to pass my class. It’s also clear that each one of them learned and that they tried. In fact, many of the most active and engaged students were students of color—mostly African-Americans and Latino/as. I also received lots of positive feedback, both verbally and in writing from students of color. I took care to survey my students personally and anonymously; there were suggestions about how to improve the course, but the overall feedback was very positive.

So what’s going on here? What am I doing that creates this kind of grade disparity?

I don’t have the answers and no one I’ve personally talked with claims to have the answers. One possible reason is suggested by the work of Stanford University professor Claude Steele and the related work of many other researchers around “stereotype threat”—the now well-established idea that when a student cares about doing well and feels that a group to which they belong is stereotyped as doing poorly on a particular subject then the added pressure actually causes them to do worse than if the pressure is removed. Steele’s work is impressive. He suggests that with sensitivity, curricular support, role models, and other interventions, stereotype threat can be alleviated.

And this points to one of my weaknesses as a math teacher: I’m not so good at broadening the curricular base to include more influences from communities of color and other cultures other than my own. I see it as pure laziness on my part. Sure I wasn’t trained that way and I get essentially no encouragement for doing that work; still, isn’t helping more of my students succeed motivation enough? I hope so.

One final thought: similar analyses of who does well in my course could be done on the basis of socio-economic class, sexual orientation, ability, and other gradients of difference. Unfortunately, my school does not collect data on most of those, some of which are hard to assess through appearance, clothing, and other outward markers alone. Such analyses would be useful and I am currently considering ways of making them possible.



  1. jd2718 says:

    It would be interesting to know how much each individual could do before taking your course. You really don’t have control over the prior 10 – 20 years of learning.

  2. halshop says:

    I agree that would be interesting and even potentially helpful in the problem. But it would not get rid of the problem and I prefer to spend my time thinking about the problem and what I can do about it rather than about knowing all the background of each individual. I suppose this reveals my bias toward systematic origins of problems and therefore my belief that we need to address them systematically, not individually.

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