Math excellence — is it just for Asian-Americans?

Elite math competitions are “overwhelmingly dominated by Asian and white males from middle-class and affluent families, observes Liana Heitin in Education Week. Some are trying to diversify the talent pool by exposing lower-income students, girls, blacks and Latinos to advanced math.

A U.S. team won the International Math Olympiad last summer, the first win for Americans in more than two decades. Four competitors were Asian-American and two were white. All were male.

Students at the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program tackle a hard geometry problem. Credit: Evelyn Lamb

Students at the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program tackle a hard geometry problem. Photo: Evelyn Lamb

Future mathletes hone their skills in “after-school clubs, summer camps, online forums and classes, and university-based “math circles,” or mathematician-led groups,” writes Heitin.

Middle schoolers start in MathCounts, then move on to an online school called Art of Problem Solving. Some K-12 students get coaching from math professors. UCLA’s Los Angeles Math Circle has more than 250 students. Elites go to the Math Olympiad Summer Training Program, a three-week math camp.

Who knows about these opportunities? Well-educated Asian immigrant parents make sure their talented children participate. “There are a lot of kids whose parents made it to America by being good at math,” said Richard Rusczyk, founder of Art of Problem Solving.

Various initiatives are trying to get more kids into advanced math, writes Heitin.

A New York City-based nonprofit called Bridge to Enter Mathematics runs a residential summer program aimed at getting underserved, mostly black and Hispanic students working toward math and science careers. The summer after 7th grade, students spend three weeks on a college campus studying advanced math for seven hours a day. Over the next five years, the group helps the students get into other elite summer math programs, high-performing high schools, and eventually college.

MathCounts has added National Math Club, which gives resources to middle-school math teachers, and the Math Video Challenge, a team competition, to appeal to a broader range of students.

After the high-pressure Countdown round at this year’s national MathCounts competition, in which the top 12 students went head to head solving complex problems in rapid fire, the finalists for the Math Video Challenge took the stage to show their videos.

Half the video finalists were black and 13 of 16 were girls.

An 8th grade team from the Ron Clark Academy, an independent middle school in Atlanta that serves low-income students, was among the finalists. The students illustrated a complicated multistep problem entirely through rap.

“Three years ago, we were the only African-American people here,” said Valerie Camille-Jones, the team’s coach. “We won the video challenge, and [MathCounts] put it all over the website. The next year, more diverse videos were submitted because [students] saw themselves. It’s exposure.”

Her students watched the fast-paced Countdown round in which 12 students answered high-level math questions. “They turned to me and said, ‘We can do this.’ ”

Black, brown boys need change — not grit

Schools are pushing “soft skills” such as “grit,” compassion and a “growth mindset” to prepare students for college and careers. Black and Brown Boys Don’t Need to Learn Grit; They Need Schools to Stop Being Racist, writes Andre Perry, an education consultant and writer, in The Root.

Soft-skills training is disguised bootstrapping, which insidiously blames youths for failing in racist systems designed to block their success, and it absolves the middle class of any responsibility to uproot inequality. It is racism that really keeps students out of college and careers, not a child’s lack of resilience. Students are ready for college and jobs. Postsecondary institutions and employers are not ready for black and brown youths.

“Men and boys of color need to learn how to deconstruct systems rather than adapt to broken ones,” writes Perry.

Louisiana students called for the state to stop prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults in an April 6 protest at the State Capitol.

Students called for juvenile-justice reform on April 6 at the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge.

For example, the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition organized teens to call for juvenile-justice reform at the State Capitol. They urged legislators and the governor to support a bill that would end the practice of prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults.

“Saying that a kid from Baltimore, St. Louis or New Orleans needs grit is like saying a mountain climber needs to get rid of her fear of falling,” Perry concludes.

That’s a good line. But is it really true that black and brown youths are ready for college and jobs, blocked only by racism? Do they already have the academic skills — and grit — needed to succeed?

Racial gaps are widest in liberal towns

ALI THANAWALLA - Matt Bremer helps freshmen at Community Partnerships Academy with their integrated math curriculum.
Matt Bremer helps freshmen at Community Partnerships Academy, one of five small schools within Berkeley High, study integrated math. Black students in the liberal college town scores 4.6 grade levels below white students. Photo: Ali Thanawalla, East Bay Express

Racial achievement gaps are widest in the most liberal towns writes Steve Sailer in Taki’s Magazine.

Ultra-liberal Berkeley has the largest black-white gap in the nation, according to the national database of school-district test scores created by Stanford and Harvard researchers. Black students in Berkeley are 4.6 grade levels behind their white classmates.

Yet, Berkeley is ferociously antiracist. It was the first to have a Black Studies Department at the high school level. In the 2012 election, Berkeley voted for Obama over Romney 90 to 5. Berkeley Unified school-district administrators obsess over any data showing that black students get punished more than other races.

White kids in Berkeley averaged 2.7 grade levels higher than the national average for all students, notes Sailer. Hispanics in the district’s public schools scored 1.1 grade levels below the national average and blacks scored 1.9 grade levels below.

. . . white students, who tend to be the children of professors, Pixar employees, or the idle rich, score well. But Berkeley’s blacks do poorly, even by the standards of blacks in general, averaging below African-Americans in Chicago and Philadelphia.

Berkeley High School was broken into five smaller schools in hopes of closing achievement gaps. However, the two academic schools are mostly white and Asian-American, while the other three schools have drawn most of the black and Hispanic students.

Out of 2121 school districts with enough blacks and whites to generate fairly reliable results, the largest black-white gaps are in liberal college towns and liberal big cities such as Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Oakland Seattle, Minneapolis and San Francisco, writes Sailer.

Some Atlanta suburbs, which have been attracting college-educated black families, have “small racial disparities with middle-of-the-road overall performance,” he writes.

The large town with the highest test scores in the country for both blacks (+0.7 grade levels above the national average) and Hispanics (+1.1 grade levels) is Frisco, Tex., a rapidly expanding exurb 28 miles north of Dallas. . . . The median income is in the low six figures. The Frisco school district “looks like America” more than just about any other: It’s 11% black, 14% Hispanic, 11% Asian, and 59% white. That’s diversity.

Frisco’s white-black gap is 0.57 standard deviations and its white-Hispanic gap is 0.43, both a little below national averages and well below most other high-scoring districts.

Frisco-area voters gave 65% of their vote to Romney, Sailer points out.

The white-Hispanic gap numbers are about 75 percent as large as the white-black gaps, the Stanford study found.

Mapping achievement gaps

A fourth grader works with his teacher in Union City, N.J., a low-income Hispanic district where students perform above grade level. Photo: Karsten Moran, New York Times

Large achievement gaps separate students by race and family income, concludes a Stanford study based on a data set of 200 million test scores.

Sixth graders in the most advantaged districts are more than four grade levels ahead of students in the least advantaged districts, the study found.

  • Average test scores of black students are, on average, roughly two grade levels lower than those of white students in the same district; the Hispanic-white difference is roughly one- and-a-half grade levels.
  • The size of the gaps has little or no association with average class size, a district’s per capita student spending or charter school enrollment.

White-black achievement gaps are especially large in Atlanta, Oakland,  Charleston and Washington, D.C., reports the New York Times, which created an interactive map of the results. Gaps also are large in university towns such as Berkeley and Chapel Hill, apparently because white students are likely to come from highly educated families.

Detroit has no achievement gap: Whites, blacks and Hispanics in district schools all are more than two years below grade level. Buffalo is gap-free too, for the same reason. Nobody’s learning.

“Poverty is not destiny,” said Sean Reardon, the lead researcher. In Union City, N.J. which is 95 percent Hispanic and mostly low-income, “students consistently performed about a third of a grade level above the national average on math and reading tests,” reports the New York Times.

Union City schools used to be dreadful, writes David Kirp, a Berkeley ed professor. Improvement was “slow and steady.”

Latino, black parents: Expect more of our kids

Latino and black parents think educators expect too little of their children, according to a survey, by The Leadership Conference Education Fund.

Both groups — but especially black parents — set a very high value on school safety, with school resources and high-quality teachers coming next in priority.

Both said family support made the most difference in students’ success in school, following by individual effort.

Ninety percent of Latinos and black parents said schools should hold low-income students to the same or higher standard as other students, reports Natalie Gross on Latino Ed Beat. “Some teachers have low expectations for low-income students of color – and parents know it.”

As in many school surveys, most parents liked their children’s schools, reports Education Week. However, 53 percent of African-American participants said schools nationally were doing a poor job preparing African-American children for the future.  Only 28 percent of Latino respondents agreed.

Also, about one-third of African-American and one-quarter of Latino participants responded that schools “are not really trying” to educate African American and Latino students.

“Children of color” are the “new majority” in public schools, the Leadership Conference observes.

If Diddy can do it . . . Start your own schools

Sean “Diddy” Combs, shown giving the commencement speech at Howard University in 2014, is helping start a college-prep charter school in Harlem.

Chris Stewart, who writes as Citizen Stewart, isn’t an education expert, he writes. A former school board member in Minneapolis and a father, he’s a “civilian” with “questions about the gulf between what black kids – including my own – are capable of achieving, and what they are currently achieving.”

He has a question for academics and teachers who oppose school reform.

Why aren’t they establishing their own schools to demonstrate all they have learned about learning? Where is the Pedro Noguera Academy of Teaching Black Boys To Read and Write? Where is the Julian Vasquez Helig School of Succeeding With Marginalized Children? What about the Diane Ravitch Center for Graduating Literate and Numerate Children of Color?

Those schools don’t exist.

Linda Darling Hammond and her Stanford colleagues did start a school in 2005, partnering with a low-income, all-minority district. Despite the university’s resources and expertise, it failed, writes Stewart.

“Maybe this demonstrates that schools alone cannot solve the very deep problems kids bring to school,” wrote Diane Ravitch when the school failed. “You cannot assume that schools alone can raise achievement scores without addressing the issues of poverty, of homelessness and shattered families.”

That’s “system-preserving, elitist nonsense,” writes Stewart. Then comes the rant:

It is one thing to speak from a vaulted perch where you are not responsible for a single kid, and preach the paleoliberal gospel of the one-best-system; to write missives against school reform as you cash under-the-table paychecks from reform funders; to sit on panels sponsored by education labor cartels and interrogate the motives of school reformers while never interrogating the motives of labor cartels; to put your own kids in private schools and then assail school choice as a misguided gift to the ignorant poor who won’t make decisions as well as you have; and to basically fill the world with useless pablum about thinking broader, bolder, more holistically, without focusing intensely on developing, administrating, delivering, and measuring the effectiveness of instruction and learning in the most important place, the classroom.

“The leaders of new schools . . . design, establish, and operate schools that fight the nihilistic, racist, and classist mantra that demography affixes melanated people without money to academic failure,” Stewart writes.

Hip hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs is helping start a New York City charter middle and high school. Capital Prep Harlem, which opens in the fall with sixth and seventh graders, will share a building with El Museo Del Barrio in East Harlem. The Museum of the City of New York is next door.

Steve Perry, who created Capital Prep Magnet in Hartford, Connecticut, will oversee the replication of his year-round, college-prep model.

Good schools matter 

Families matter a great deal and schools very little when it comes to education, concluded the famous Coleman report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, 50 years ago. Coleman mixed up cause and correlation, writes Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby as part of Education Next‘s look back on the influential report.

Coleman “did not consider the possibility that advantaged children might have had high achievement precisely because their parents could choose good schools and ditch bad schools,” she writes.

Coleman believed teacher quality didn’t matter because measurable teacher characteristics, such as experience, education and vocabulary score, explained little of the variation in students’ achievement.

Parents always knew some teachers were better than others, writes Hoxby. These days, “numerous rigorous analyses of value-added demonstrate that teachers matter a great deal.”

Coleman failed to see that “good” families might be those who could discern which teachers were effective and get their children into those teachers’ classes. Thus, part of the apparent family effect was really a choose-effective-teachers effect.

(Before my daughter started kindergarten, I visited the two teachers’ classrooms and requested the one I liked the most. In later years, I networked with other parents to determine which teachers had the best reputations.)
Looking back, it is obvious that this early and voluntary desegregation was dominated by selection, that is, families’ own choices.Coleman also concluded that minority children achieved more when they had white classmates, Hoxby writes. But his study didn’t look at students randomly assigned to an integrated or all-black classroom. The data, from an era before desegregation orders, reflected “the sort of black families who were motivated and able to live in integrated neighborhoods.”

Hoxby attended voluntarily integrated schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio.  “Often, the blacks were professionals who already spent most of their working lives among whites, had white friends, and participated in mixed-race church and social groups. ”

Her research has found that “when students are randomly assigned to schools, it is the achievement and not the race of their peers that matters.”

Blacks graduate in lowest-paying majors

Black college graduates are likely to choose low-tech majors that lead to low-paying jobs, according to a report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Twenty percent of black students major in human services and community organization (median earnings of $39,000). They’re also over-represented in social work ($42,000), early childhood education ($38,000) and psychology.

Few major in engineering, science or math. Those who do often choose the lowest-paying speciality, such as biology for black women and civil engineering for black men.

Early childhood education, one of the lowest-paying majors, is a popular choice for black students.

Blacks are more likely to major in the “caring” professions, such as early childhood education, which lead to low-paying jobs.

Two-thirds of black college graduates are female, which surely explains some of the lean toward the “caring” and underpaid professions.

In addition, most black graduates have attended an open-admissions college that may have limited majors and inadequate counseling, the report observed.

Many Americans — and especially those who are the first in their families to attend college — think any degree guarantees a decent job and a middle-class life. Someone should tell them they’ll have trouble repaying student loans for a non-technical degree from an unselective college.

Schools aren’t resegregating

Schools aren’t resegregating, writes Steven Rivkin, a professor at University of Illinois in Chicago, in Education Next.

Blacks have less exposure to white students since the 1980s because white enrollment has dropped by nearly 30 percent. However, they attend more ethnically diverse schools because of rising enrollment by Latinos and Asian-Americans.

Black enrollment has stayed about the same.

Demographic shifts have increased “contact between both whites and blacks and the children of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere,” Rivkin writes.

Latinos are now the largest minority group, while whites make up slightly less than half of public school enrollment.

Focusing on black-white enrollment is old hat. Focusing on socioeconomic diversity would make more sense — but we need better statistics on family poverty and disadvantage. Using school lunch stats makes no sense.

Black teachers identify more gifted blacks

Black achievers are about half as likely to be placed on the “gifted” track as whites with similar test scores, according to a new Vanderbilt study.

The teacher’s race makes a difference, reports NPR. Black teachers identify 6.2 percent of black students as gifted in reading, while non-black teachers saw only 2.1 percent of black students as gifted, researchers found.

Because of racial gaps in test scores, many districts rely more on teacher referrals to identify gifted students, researcher Jason Grissom told NPR. “That opens a big potential door as a driver for disparity.”

It’s not clear why black teachers find more gifted black students, writes Hechinger’s Jill Barshay.

Perhaps black teachers are more likely to recognize brilliance in a black student and suggest that the student be screened for giftedness.

Parents also play a big role in lobbying for their children to enter these programs. Another possibility is that black parents feel more comfortable advocating for their child with a black teacher, demanding that their child be screened for giftedness.

And finally it’s possible that black children perform better for a black teacher, and are more likely to demonstrate how brainy they are in these classrooms.

There’s no white-Latino “giftedness gap,” the study found. White and Latino students with the same scores were equally likely to get placed in a gifted program.

Testing every child for giftedness could help close the gap in access to accelerated programs, suggests Grissom.