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Helping African American students find formula for success

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Maisie Gholson

Maisie Gholson, a doctoral student in mathematics education, is studying algebra learning among African American high school students.

Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Educators call ninth-grade algebra the most frequently failed high-school course and a “gateway class” — a required class in which success predicts graduation.

Failing the subject leads many students to drop out, graduate late, or lose opportunities for higher education.

Algebra is a particular obstacle to classroom participation and math achievement among black students, says a UIC researcher who received a $90,000, three-year National Science Foundation fellowship to study algebra learning among African American students.

“A clear and deep understanding of how African American students develop intellectually and socially, in the classroom in real time, will support efforts to improve teaching practices for historically marginalized students,” said Maisie Gholson, a third-year doctoral student in mathematics education.

Gholson will analyze the impact of talk — including lectures, classroom discussion and student-to-student conversation — in algebra classes throughout an academic year in urban high schools that are at least 25 percent African American.

“All learning happens through talk, and everyday classroom talk affects the way African American students see themselves, racially and academically,” Gholson said.

Outside of class, Gholson will interview teachers and students individually.

She plans to assess students’ racial identity formation through her observation and the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity — a questionnaire widely used by social science researchers.

Gholson says she ascribes to the view of civil rights leader Bob Moses, founder of a math literacy program called the Algebra Project, that algebra learning is a civil right.

“Usually we don’t study black students in and of themselves. We make assumptions about them,” she said.

“The mathematical experiences of black students are understood primarily in terms of outcomes, and those outcomes are typically compared to those of white students and referred to as achievement gaps.”


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