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«Learning Mathematics While Black1 By Danny Bernard Martin A study that concludes that African-American students perform way below White mainstream ...»

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Danny Bernard Martin

Educational Foundations, Winter-Spring 2012

Learning Mathematics

While Black1

By Danny Bernard Martin

A study that concludes that African-American

students perform way below White mainstream

students… is correct, but such a conclusion tells

us very little about the material conditions with

which African-American students work in the

struggle against racism, educational tracking, and

the systematic negation and devaluation of their

histories. I would propose that the correct conclusion rests in a full understanding of the ideological elements that generate and sustain the cruel reality of racism and economic oppression. Thus an empirical study will produce conclusions without truth if it is disarticulated from the socio-cultural reality within which the subjects of the study are situated.

(Macedo, 1998, p. xxii) In a recently edited book, titled Mathematics TeachDanny Bernard Martin is a ing, Learning, and Liberation in the Lives of Black professor in both the College of Children (Martin, 2009b), I charged the authors with Education and the Department the task of continuing to help change the direction of of Mathematics, Statistics, and research on Black children and mathematics. I suggested Computer Science at the University that such a change was necessary because the knowledge of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, base of rigorous, explanatory research, stretching a Illinois. minimum of 30 years, has remained quite thin and that Learning Mathematics While Black Black children and their competencies, more often than not, continue to be framed in negative and detrimental ways.2 I noted that underachievement and failure in mathematics have been emphasized over success and resilience. I also noted that the aims and goals of mathematics education for Black children have often been conceptualized in overly simplistic ways that emphasize their commodification as future participants in higher-level mathematics courses or in the nation-preserving technological workforce (National Research Council, 1989; RAND Mathematics Study Panel, 2003; U.S. Department of Education, 2008). Liberatory and emancipatory themes have seldom been put forth in response to the question why should Black children learn mathematics? (e.g., Anderson, 1970; Martin & McGee, 2009;

Woodson, 1933).

In my own chapter, titled “Liberating the Production of Knowledge About African American Children and Mathematics” (Martin, 2009c), I described how the dominant framings and storylines about Black children and mathematics have grown out of a race-comparative approach (McLoyd, 1991). As a result, and until very recently, much of the knowledge base on Black children and mathematics has consisted of summary reports documenting their performance on achievement tests in relation to other children (Johnson, 1984; Lubienski, 2002; Secada, 1992; Strutchens & Silver, 2000; Tate, 1997),3 particularly White children, whose mathematical behaviors and outcomes are typically normalized as the standard for all children (Martin, 2007b, 2009a, 2009d, 2009e). The discursive practice of referring to Black-White racial gaps in mathematics achievement and notions of closing such gaps by raising Black achievement to the level of White achievement contribute to this normalization (Ladson-Billings, 2006; Perry, 2003).

Although the race-comparative approach has been helpful in documenting and pinpointing disparities, it has also had the deleterious effect of helping to position Black children at the bottom of a racial hierarchy of mathematics ability (Martin, 2009a, 2009c, 2009d). This positioning often becomes the default, takenas-shared assumption and starting point not only in many mainstream mathematics education research and policy discussions but also in everyday discourse among the general public. Elsewhere (Martin, 2007b, 2009a), I have also shown that this taken-as-shared assumption about Black learners draws on, and contributes to, racial ideologies informing larger social societal discourses about what it means to be Black. Moreover, construed far beyond their intended purposes, the results of race-comparative analyses have been used by some scholars to question if, not how, Black children can learn mathematics (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; S. Thernstrom & A. Thernstrom, 1997; A. Thernstrom & S. Thernstrom, 2004).

A dominant storyline about Black children and mathematics has also included a fixed set of cultural and cognitive explanations for negative outcomes (Martin, 2000; McGee, 2009), including cultural differences or deficits, limited mathematical knowledge and problem solving skills, family background and socioeconomic status, and oppositional orientations to schooling. However, a number of scholars, particularly outside of mathematics education, have argued that these perspectives, Danny Bernard Martin in one way or another, are limited in explanatory scope and have only served to reinforce impoverished views of Black children (Anderson, 2004; Hale, 2001;

Ladson-Billings, 2006; Lomotey, 1990; McLoyd, 1991; Murrell, 2002; Ogbu, 1992;

Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003; Shujaa, 1994).

My earlier call for expanding the counternarrative about Black children and mathematics reflected a heightened push by a growing number of scholars in the field to better understand complex relationships among cognitive, non-cognitive, structural, institutional, and ideological factors influencing patterns of participation and socialization as well as achievement outcomes among Black children (e.g., Berry, 2008; Gutierrez, 2000; Jackson, 2009; Johnson, 2009; McGee, 2009; Moody, 2001; Nasir, 2002; Spencer, 2009; Stinson, 2007, 2008; Tate, 1994, 1995a, 1995b;

Terry, 2010; Walker, 2006). Scholars engaged in this work have begun to explore several important, but understudied, areas related to Black children’s mathematics learning and development, including: (1) the racialized nature of students’ mathematical experiences in school and non-school settings, (2) students’ beliefs about their ability to participate meaningfully in mathematical contexts based on their socializing experiences, (3) their resulting motivations and rationales for learning and doing mathematics, and (4) the co-construction of mathematics identities and other social identities that are important to these students. Some scholars have also given focused attention to issues of pedagogy (Berry & McClain, 2009; Leonard, 2008; Malloy, 2009, Matthews, 2003).

While research by the scholars cited above, and others, has contributed greatly to an emerging knowledge base on Black children and mathematics, there continues to be a dire need for insightful research that de-centers longstanding accounts that have contributed to the construction of Black children as mathematically illiterate and as less than ideal learners relative to other student groups. Continued research will also help to refine the most promising theoretical and methodological approaches.

In this article, I argue for even greater attention by researchers to understand and document what it means to learn mathematics while Black. This is not a narrow call meant to suggest that Black children are idiosyncratic in their mathematical behavior and development. This is a call with much richer aims focused on learning and identity, two centrally important considerations in children’s mathematical development (Boaler, 2002; Leonard, 2008; Martin, 2000; Nasir & Hand, 2006;

Solomon, 2009; Spencer, 2009). Yet, while it is important to discuss the development of Black children as children, this call echoes the claims of many scholars who have argued that it is equally important to prioritize their development as Black children (Clark, 1984; Hale, 1986; 1994; 2001; Lomotey, 1990; Martin, 2009c, 2009d; McLoyd, 1991).

Mindful of McLoyd’s (1991) critical question what is the study of AfricanAmerican children the study of? the call made here is not a call for additional studies focused on documenting how Black children differ from White children.

Instead, it is a call for understanding mathematics learning, development, and participation among Black children within their phenomenal Black realities (MyLearning Mathematics While Black ers, Rana, & Harris, 1979, as cited in McLoyd, 1991), giving attention to the micro-, meso-, and macro-level forces affecting their lives and utilizing culturally sensitive research methods to account for these forces (Gordon, 1990; Milner, 2007; Tillman, 2002). Researchers seeking to honor the demands of this call should (a) explore the richness and complexities of what it means to be a Black child in a given context and (b) provide accurate and honest renderings of Black children’s mathematical knowledge, identities, and agency. These considerations require that researchers explore, at sufficiently detailed levels of analysis, Black children’s development and engagement with mathematics not only in the context of paper and pencil tests but also with respect to the contexts where these children use mathematics in meaningful and powerful ways. These considerations should be described across multiple contexts of analysis: sociohistorical, community, family, school, classroom, and intrapersonal (Martin, 2000). Research in these directions would also be strengthened by drawing on frameworks from cultural-ecological theory, racial identity development theory, sociological and critical theories of race, frame theory, and critical policy analysis.

Phenomenal Realities for Black Children African American students face challenges unique to them as students in American schools at all levels by virtue of their social identity as African Americans and of the way that identity can be a source of devaluation in contemporary American society.... Before we can theorize African-American school achievement, we need to have an understanding of what the nature of the task of achievement is for African Americans as African Americans. (Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003, pp. vii-4) The call to study learning mathematics while Black put forth here acknowledges that being Black is not the only aspect or the most salient aspect of Black children’s senses of self and development. There is great diversity among Black children in the United States. There is no singular, essential characterization. They come from varied socioeconomic and family backgrounds and respond to schooling and education in multiple ways. However, given that the meanings for Blackness have always permeated the prevailing racial ideologies, institutional practices, social arrangements, and opportunity structures in the U.S. society (Bonilla-Silva, 2001), these meanings are no less relevant to Black children’s mathematical development and lived realities.

First, they are relevant in the ways that Black children are socially constructed in mathematics education research and policy discourses (Martin, 2007b, 2009a, 2009c, 2009d). My critical analyses have shown that mathematics education research and policy are deeply implicated in racialized constructions of who is considered mathematically literate and who is not (Martin, 2007b, 2009c, 2010). Mathematics education policy reports dating back nearly 25 years have explicitly labeled Black children as mathematically illiterate (National Research Council, 1989). These constructions are not merely empirical but also ideological. Research focusing on Black children should always be examined for the way it conceptualizes and Danny Bernard Martin frames these children and the way it frames Blackness, either explicitly or implicitly.

Moreover, the findings from these studies should be interpreted critically in light of these framings.

Second, these meanings are relevant in the ways Black children are socialized with respect to mathematics in both school and non-school contexts. In school contexts, for example, these meanings have been shown to influence teacher beliefs and practices to the degree that some teachers maintain deficit views of Black children and their competencies and fail to provide rich learning opportunities (Jackson, 2009; Spencer, 2009). These meanings can also emerge in peer interactions where students can unwittingly reproduce negative views of Blackness that they have appropriated from elsewhere (Nasir, Atukpawu, O’Connor, Wishnia, & Tsang, 2009;

Spencer, 2009).

Third, these meanings are relevant in highlighting Black children’s emerging intrapersonal conceptions of what it means to be Black and what it means to be doers of mathematics vis-à-vis the conceptions and meanings that are constructed by others (Martin, 2000; Nasir, Atukpawu, O’Connor, Wishnia, & Tsang, 2009;

Nyamekye, 2010; Spencer, 2009). These emerging conceptions also reflect the fact that Black children are growing up in a time when geopolitical boundaries are being blurred by technology and globalization. Social media such as YouTube and Facebook are not only responsible for exporting and importing culture, ideology, protest, and revolution, but also for exposing the human condition and helping Black children to contextualize their lives vis-à-vis the conditions in which other children live and learn. As they negotiate their way in the world, they also draw on these sources to give meaning to their Blackness and to doing mathematics.

Despite these complex influences on the meanings for Blackness, it is unfortunate that some policymakers and researchers occasionally lose sight of this fact by confining Black children’s existence to a single, pathological set of material and cultural circumstances: at-risk, poverty-ridden communities, ghettos, dysfunctional families, and oppositional stances toward schooling (D’ Souza, 1991; Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; S. Thernstrom & A. Thernstrom, 1997; A. Thernstrom & S. Thernstrom, 2004;

McWhorter, 2001). Ignoring historical and structural considerations, we are asked to believe that genetic, cultural, and intellectual inferiority account for these conditions.

High-poverty contexts and ghettos, in particular, are not natural contexts for Black children and such circumstances should not be normalized in studies of their mathematical development. Like slavery and Jim Crow, these contexts are “race-making institutions” (Wacquant, 2006, p. 101) designed to dehumanize and inflict material, structural, and symbolic violence on those who are forced to live in them.

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