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.”

Blacks, Hispanics gain in reading, math

Black and Hispanic students are improving in reading and math on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams, writes Mikhail Zinshteyn on FiveThirtyEight.
zinshteyn-feature-NAEP-2

“Overall, scores for 9-year-olds taking the reading assessment grew by 11 points between 1975 and 2012,” he writes. “The scores for black and Hispanic students each rose by 25 points in that same period”

While scores for white 13-year-olds increased by less than 10 points in reading, scores for blacks and Hispanics grew by 21 and 17 points, respectively.

White 17-year-olds gained no more than two points between 1975 and 2012, while scores for black and Hispanic students grew by more than 20 points.

Math shows the same pattern. Gains for black and Hispanic students were much greater than average at each age level.
zinshteyn-feature-NAEP-1

Among 13-year-olds, math scores for white students increased by 21 points, while results for blacks and Hispanics increased by 34 points and 33 points, respectively.

Seventeen-year-old gained six points overall between 1978 and 2012.  Scores for black and Hispanic students increased by 20 and 18 points, respectively.

Blacks and Hispanics remain behind and they make a larger share of enrollment, so the average score doesn’t look all that good, concludes Zinshteyn.

Dual immersion revives bilingual ed

Bilingual education is making a come back, writes Sarah Garland on Slate. “Dual-language” programs that teach in both English and (usually) Spanish appeal to Hispanics and to middle- and upper-middle-class English speakers who want their kids to be bilingual.

One afternoon last fall, I watched as a group of young Hispanic students trained to become the best Spanish-language spellers in America. Their thick practice packet for the fourth annual National Spanish Spelling Bee began with examples of the easiest words students might expect to encounter in the bee’s first round, like esperar (to wait for), cuidar (to take care of), and peluca (wig); it extended to much harder 20th-round samples, like fisioterapeuta (physical therapist), otorrinolaringologo (ear, nose, and throat specialist), and nenufar (water lily).

Until recently, many Hispanic parents wanted their children to learn English quickly, writes Garland. “Hispanic parents haven’t lost sight of the stigma and obstacles faced by non-English speakers, but they may feel more confident embracing their native language.”

“A growing body of research suggests that dual language education does not hinder a non-native speaker’s progress in English and may actually accelerate it over time if the programs are designed well,” she writes.

 Dual-immersion programs aren’t prone to water down academic content because they include advantaged students whose parents wouldn’t stand for it. That’s a huge advantage over traditional bilingual ed.

A New Mexico student at the state Spanish Spelling Bee in April 2011.A New Mexico student at the state Spanish Spelling Bee in April 2011.

In secondary school, non-fluent students often are taught academic subjects in “sheltered English” classes. “Sheltered” students think they’re stupid, according to a new study. The stigma is strongest for long-time English Learners, weakest for recent immigrants.

That makes sense. Students who’ve gone to U.S. schools since kindergarten and don’t test as proficient in English are less capable than those who’ve left English Learner status behind. Recent immigrants’ lack of English fluency doesn’t say anything about their intelligence.

Obama: (Great) preschool for all

“Sometimes, someone, usually Mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result,” said President Obama in an Oct. 31 speech. “That’s not a choice we want Americans to make.”

Obama called for subsidizing high-quality preschool, so working mothers don’t have to choose between affordable, not-so-great programs or leaving the workforce temporarily. It was taken as a hit at stay-at-home mothers.

In another push for preschool, Education Secretary Arne Duncan added to the perception that the administration wants every parent to choose preschool.

With Hispanic parents, “sometimes you have a cultural piece where people are scared to put their kids in more formal care and they prefer, you know, to do the grandmother, the neighbor, whatever,” he said at a Washington, D.C. event. Work is needed on “how we challenge some of the cultural hesitation” of Hispanic parents, Duncan said.

Obama’s remarks were “a rare allusion to the fact that the intersex pay gap — women earn approximately 77 cents on a man’s dollar — reflects different lifestyle choices the sexes make, responded Selwyn Duke in The New American.

Stay-at-home mothers understand the trade-offs, writes Mollie Hemingway on The Federalist. “When I had my first child, I traded the money of my newspaper job for the far-greater value (for me) of time spent with my totally awesome daughter.” It was a choice.

Men tend to work more and earn more when they become fathers, she adds. Intact families often see a “marriage premium —  more money brought home,” even though mothers tend to prioritize child-raising.

I worked part-time — about 25 hours a week — till my daughter was eight years old. It was great for both of us and my career didn’t suffer, though I knew I was taking a risk that it would.

 

ACT: College readiness gap is wide

Only 26 percent of 2014 graduates who took the ACT are prepared to succeed in college, according to ACT’s college readiness report. Another 13 percent passed three out of four benchmarks in English, reading, math and science. Thirty-one percent didn’t pass a single benchmark and 16 percent passed only one.

That’s no worse than in previous years, despite the growing number of students taking the test.

Nationwide, 57 percent of the class of 2014 took the ACT. While 86 percent want to go to college, but some live in states that require all students to take a college admissions exam. Last year, only 69 percent of ACT test takers actually enrolled in college that fall.

A student who meets a benchmark has a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher, or a 75 chance of a C or higher in first-year college courses, estimates ACT.

While 57 percent of Asian-Americans and 49 percent of whites met three or more benchmarks, that dropped to 23 percent for Latinos and 11 percent for  African-American test-takers.

Overall, 64 percent of test takers tested as college-ready in English, 44 percent in reading, 43 percent in math and 37 percent in science.

Average composite scores ranged from 23.5 for Asians, 22.3 for whites, 18.8 for Latinos and 17 for blacks.

Massachusetts students had the highest composite score, 24.3 points. Hawaii ranked lowest, with an average of 18.2.

Exam schools pushed on admissions

New York City’s elite high schools admit students who excel on a 2 1/2-hour exam. A majority are Asian-American. Only 12 percent are Hispanic or black. The teachers union and a group of Democratic legislators want to use multiple measures, including grade point averages, attendance and state tests in addition to the current admissions exam.

Advocates of the bill say using one test favors students whose parents can afford tutoring to prepare for the test.

However, at six of the schools, at least 45 percent of the students come from low-income families, according to the city.

Many of the high-scoring Asian-American students come from immigrant families.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Simcha Felder, hopes to add subjective criteria such as essays, community service, interviews and extracurricular activities.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, also backed a holistic review. “If it’s good enough for Harvard and Yale it should be good enough for the students of New York City,” he said.

Political support is weak, reports the New York Times.

Mayor de Blasio, whose son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Tech, said last year that the test should not be the only way to qualify for the elite schools. But he hasn’t come out for the bill yet.

Alumni groups are opposed.

While expressing support for increasing minority enrollment, in ways like providing them with more test preparation, Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, said that the existing system was simple and had “a number of benefits,” including “no favoritism, no bias, whether intentional or subconscious, no politics.”

There may be political support to revive the “Discovery” program, which gave intensive summer help to students who just missed the score cutoff to help them qualify by September. The program lost funding due to budget cuts.

LA charters raise math, reading scores

Los Angeles charter students gain 50 more days of learning in reading and 79 days in math than similar students in district schools, concludes a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Low-income Hispanic students did even better, gaining 58 additional days of learning in reading and 115 more days in math.

Citywide, 48 percent of charter schools have significantly larger learning gains in reading, while 44 percent do so in math, the 2014 CREDO study found. Thirteen percent of Los Angeles charter schools have results that are significantly worse than their district school peers in reading and 22 percent perform worse in math.

Urban charters serving low-income students show the strongest gains in recent research.