Culturally Relevant Math

It’s a much-publicized fact that U.S. students who are falling behind in mathematics achievement come predominantly from high-poverty and high-minority areas. Assistant professor Robert Berry is hot on the trail of methods that may help close the mathematics achievement gap for African Americans.

Berry, in collaboration with mathematics education doctoral student Oren McClain, has been conducting research on mathematics teaching methods that incorporate African American learning preferences. Their work in a rural southern Virginia middle school compares the achievement of six seventh grade classrooms consisting predominantly of African American students—three taught in a traditional manner and three taught using what Berry calls “culturally relevant” methods.

Berry and McClain have developed two units of mathematics instruction to address a more relational, holistic style of learning that provides a social context for learning.

For example, in the recently completed unit on adding and subtracting positive and negative integers, students read the newspaper for reports on diminishing water levels in the county, as well as following high school football yardage gains and losses. Students also used virtual and hands-on two-color counting blocks and kept score while playing four-hole miniature golf on a homemade course.

Rather than teachers telling students the math rules, the students noticed patterns and created a running classroom list of rules they discovered. From this list of rules, students then wrote a song or rap to share with the class, and they analyzed each other’s lyrics for accuracy.

“Our initial analysis on this first unit,” says Berry, “indicates that students in the intervention classrooms scored significantly higher on the posttest than students did in the more traditional classrooms.” In the traditional classrooms, students were provided with rules by the teacher and then drilled with practice problems.

Interesting, as well, is the fact that the gap in scores between black and white students nearly disappeared within the three intervention classes, even though gaps existed in all six classes on the pretest at the beginning of the school year.

“If we continue to see this pattern in our future research,” Berry says, “it will have important implications for teachers making connections to students’ experiences and adding new learning to what students already know.”

Berry is also working with Virginia elementary mathematics specialists, exploring how they navigate their roles as teacher mentors and content specialists. Math specialists in Virginia do not have classroom teaching responsibilities. Rather, they work with teachers and administrators to support and improve the quality of mathematics teaching and learning in the school building.