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Conceptualizing the African American Mathematics Teacher as a Key Figure in the African American Education Historical Narrative


by Lawrence M. Clark, Toya Jones Frank & Julius Davis - 2013

Background/Context: Historians and researchers have documented and explored the work and role of African American teachers in the U.S. educational system, yet there has been limited attention to the specific work, role, and experiences of African American mathematics teachers. To meaningfully and responsibly conceptualize the role of African American mathematics teachers and better understand their work in U.S. schools, analytic approaches are needed to help us understand cases of African American mathematics teachers as representations of a complex and ever-evolving series of intertwined contexts, forces, and events that include critical events along historical timelines (i.e., U.S. educational system, mathematics education, technological innovation and development, African American teaching force).

Purpose/Objective: The purpose of this article is to challenge readers to consider the African American mathematics teacher as a conceptual entity that embodies characteristics, practices, and dispositions that are potentially meaningful for students, particularly African American students, in ways that support students’ capacity to participate and perform within the racialized contexts of mathematics education, the broader schooling experience, and broader society.

Design: Structured as an analytic essay, this article provides a rationale and potential directions of inquiry for historians and researchers open to explorations of relationships between race, mathematics education, teacher identity, and teacher practice.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We make two assertions about the African American mathematics teacher that help to conceptualize his or her role as a theoretical construct. First, the African American mathematics teacher is a boundary spanner with membership in multiple communities—a mathematically proficient and intellectually powerful African American person within a historically disempowered African American community with a history of inaccessibility to and underperformance in mathematics. Second, through various implicit and explicit means and micro-interactions, the African American mathematics teacher has the potential to engage in liberatory mathematics pedagogy, a pedagogy that serves to dismantle racialized hierarchies of mathematics ability. We encourage mathematics education researchers to interrogate, challenge, critique, and build on conceptualizations of the African American mathematics teacher as an entity that represents a unique confluence of experiences, perspectives, dispositions, and knowledge domains critical to the education of students. In doing so, it is our hope that theories of student learning, participation, and performance will more willingly embrace, acknowledge, and incorporate the inescapable dynamics of race, class, student identity, and teacher identity.

IMAGE I


The year is 1949. Ida Bell1 is a 62-year-old African American mathematics teacher at Walker High School, a segregated school in a southern U.S. state. The entire student body of Walker is African American.2 Ida, like all the teachers in the school, lives in the same segregated community as her students and attends the same Baptist church that many of her students’ families attend. Her teaching preparation and credentials match those of her White colleagues teaching in the White high schools in the vicinity.3 Ida is well respected by her students, her students’ parents, and the community at large.4 Ida and the community are well aware of the historical and contemporary characterizations of African Americans as genetically and intellectually inferior5; however, student achievement data comparing students’ mathematics performance in her school with students’ mathematics performance in the surrounding White schools do not exist. Therefore, there is no hard evidence describing her students as underperforming in mathematics in comparison with local White students.6 In fact, the administrators, teachers, and community collectively resist these characterizations and are very proud of their school, its high standards, and the potential of their students.7 There is, however, considerable discussion in Ida’s community about unfairness in allocation of resources to Walker and the surrounding White schools by the local school board.8 In an effort to meet the perceived needs of her students (including preparing them for interactions in potentially hostile White institutions such as banks and stores), Ida and her colleagues continually design and revise lessons that are situated in contexts that students are familiar with while maintaining identified mathematics learning goals.9 By all accounts, Ida’s capacity to manage the multiple demands of her profession is high. Furthermore, it could be argued that Ida’s unique multidimensional knowledge base (i.e., subject matter, pedagogical, cultural, experiential) positions her to engage in practices that influence her African American students’ perceptions of themselves as learners of mathematics and, through that, influence their performance in mathematics.


IMAGE II


The year is 2008. Floyd Lee10 is a 25-year-old African American mathematics teacher at Erasmus High School, a large high school on the fringe of an urban city on the Eastern seaboard. Eighty-percent of Erasmus’ students are African American, 18% are Latino, and 2% are White.11 Floyd lives within 10 miles of his school, yet he rarely sees his students outside of the school walls or talks to the parents of his students outside of rare formal communications related to their academic progress. There is consistent dialogue in the school among teachers and administrators that many parents are not as involved in their children’s academic work as they should be and that many students seem disengaged (particularly the African American males) and do not apply themselves fully.12 Floyd is fully credentialed to teach secondary mathematics in his state, and he is well respected by his colleagues. Having grown up in the school community and being only 8 or 9 years older than his students, Floyd has a familiarity with his students’ community, culture, and language. As one of a few African American male teachers in the school, Floyd is often perceived by the school community as “rare,” an ”asset,” and a “role model.”13 Despite his success and reputation in his school, many of his African American college buddies who chose more lucrative career paths in business, law, medicine, and engineering do not hold Floyd’s career choice in such high esteem.14 There is considerable concern in Floyd’s school district related to the mathematics achievement gap between the African American students and White students in the district and state. Because of historical trends in underperformance in mathematics in this school, Erasmus is perceived by the district and local media as in particular need of improvements in students’ performance in mathematics. As a result, a host of curricular interventions, teacher professional development workshops, mathematics support classes, and tutoring programs have been instituted to serve as mechanisms to “close the gap.”15 By all accounts, Floyd’s capacity to manage the multiple demands required of his profession is high. Furthermore, it could be argued that Floyd’s unique multidimensional knowledge base (i.e., subject matter, pedagogical, cultural, experiential) positions him to engage in practices that influence his African American students’ perceptions of themselves as learners of mathematics and, through that, influence their performance in mathematics.


* * *


The descriptions of Ida Bell, a fictional character drawn from the literature about African American teachers prior to Brown v. Board of Education, and Floyd Lee, an actual participant in the Case Studies of Urban Algebra I Mathematics Teachers Project at the University of Maryland, underscore the saliency of race and historical context in the role and work of the U.S. mathematics teacher. There are evident similarities between Ida’s and Floyd’s backgrounds, experiences, and teaching contexts: Both are African American, well respected, and teach mathematics in a predominantly (if not exclusively) African American high school. Yet the two images are situated in two historical, social, temporal, and geographical zones that arguably bear only slight resemblance. In both contexts, however, both teachers’ worlds are inarguably shaped by a confluence of multilevel forces (Martin, 2000) that potentially influences the role they play in the lives of their students and the work they do in their classrooms. Across both images, the forces that influence the nature of their interactions with their students are plentiful and include local mathematics education policy (standards, curriculum, assessment); collective school and community expectations of student achievement, success, disengagement, and failure; institutional structures that sort communities and students, intentionally or otherwise, by race (segregation, tracking, special education labeling); and the subtle or overt framing of their students of color as “full of potential” or “problems.” All mathematics classrooms, regardless of locale and place in time, are highly influenced by a host of these forces. Furthermore, Ida and Floyd, as members of multiple communities, engage in a variety of practices shaped by this multimembership. These communities include the local and larger African American communities, specific socioeconomic strata, gender categories, and age groups. These images suggest that teachers draw on far more than content and pedagogical knowledge to communicate and interact with students; they draw on their lived experiences, their collective community experiences, and their interpretations of the nature and role of those experiences as influences on their visions of teaching and pedagogical practices (Van Manen, 1990).


This article is organized to convey two salient points. First, in that there is very little historical documentation of the work, role, and praxis of African American mathematics teachers in U.S. mathematics education, literature on segregated schools, or even treatments of contemporary U.S. schools, we contend that scholarly explorations are needed to better understand the role of African American mathematics teachers in the history of U.S. schools and the cultural, experiential, and intellectual resources they bring to the profession. We argue that these explorations can contribute to present and future discussions of policy and practice in mathematics education and suggest that these efforts can assist in providing students, particularly African American students, with quality mathematics instruction. Second, we contend that the praxis of African American mathematics teachers is highly influenced by numerous intertwining historical timelines, including trends in the perception of racial hierarchies of intelligence, developments related to U.S. mathematics curricula, technological advances, and key U.S. social milestones (i.e., school desegregation) that had great effect on living and schooling patterns for U.S. citizens. We theorize that because of the complexities of these social and historical forces, the work and role of the African American mathematics teacher take on particular features and serve purposes beyond that of facilitator of mathematics learning for students.


This article is structured to convey these two points in four sections. The first section provides a brief overview of the resources and experiences that African American teachers in general, not just in mathematics, bring to their practice according to the literature. The second section argues the importance of examining the role, responsibilities, and work of African American teachers in an academic domain-specific context, namely mathematics. Very little is known about how African American mathematics teachers interpret their practice in different historical contexts, social conditions, and educational settings. The third section delves more deeply into conceptualizing the African American mathematics teacher by situating her praxis in historical context. By way of example, it poses possible questions that might be explored related to the ways in which such praxis may be shaped and reshaped because of the convergence of specific national narratives, social movements, and political developments. The concluding section provides final thoughts related to features of the African American mathematics teacher when viewed as a historical role and theoretical construct, including how doing so provides a richer and more nuanced understanding of the intersections of race, identity, social context, and the teaching of mathematics.


CONCEPTUALIZATIONS OF THE AFRICAN AMERICAN TEACHER: A BRIEF REVIEW


Prior to exploring the role and work of the African American mathematics teacher, it is important to provide an overview of the literature describing African American teachers in general. In most instances, the African American teacher is described in the research literature in relation to his or her role in the lives of his or her African American students. The literature base describing the relationships between African American teachers, African American students, and African American communities prior to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka legislation suggests that the African American teacher was a highly visible, active member of the local African American community, was highly respected by this community, and often taught a hidden curriculum focused on teaching his or her African American students what it means to be Black in America and to explicitly communicate messages countering prevailing messages that suggested that African Americans were genetically and intellectually inferior to Whites (Walker, 1996). Prior to Brown, common membership in multiple communities (African American, neighborhood, church) positioned the African American teacher of African American students to serve in multiple capacities and to teach his or her students lessons of character, integrity, pride, and the importance of education while simultaneously teaching the traditional content of academic disciplines. In reference to the role of the African American teacher in segregated schools and during the first years of desegregation, Adair (1984), quoted in Walker (1996), stated,


Traditionally, the black teacher has played multiple roles [emphasis added] in schools. Among these have been teacher, parent surrogate figure, counselor, disciplinarian, and modeling figure. These roles have been anchored in a collective black identity where these teachers perceive the success or failure of their pupils as gains and losses to the black community. That is, the teacher and pupil share a common interest and mission. The teacher views themselves as ethnically responsible for preparing these youth for future leadership and for making contributions to this unique mission, namely the liberation and enhancement of the quality of life for black people. (p. 206)


In short, during the pre-Brown era, the research literature describing the relationships between African American teachers, their African American students, and the larger African American community suggests that African American teachers were active, viable community members, were highly respected, and deliberately and consciously used their knowledge of their students’ lives and the African American community’s history as motivational tools and instructional resources.


It should be noted, however, that some scholars are critical of idealized portrayals of African American teachers during segregation. Fairclough (2007) stated, “It would be false, then, to depict [African American] teachers as community leaders who enjoyed unalloyed support from parents and pupils” (p. 19), in that, like all communities, social and power hierarchies based on ancestry, skin tone, wealth, and geographical origins were well entrenched in the African American community during slavery, Reconstruction, and segregation. In some instances, the African American teacher was seen as an outsider, particularly those trained in the North and teaching in the South, and treated with suspicion and disdain. Despite these complexities, there is a strong narrative in the literature describing the African American teacher under segregation as a figure engaged in a noble, uplifting service and perceived by many to be a critical agent in African American children’s educational and social development and in the African American community’s progress (Fairclough, 2007; J. Irvine, 1989; R. W. Irvine & Irvine, 1983; Walker, 1996).


Post-Brown, the role that the African American teacher plays in schools and the lives of students shifts in ways that mirror the social and political complexities that emerged in the United States during the civil rights movement. Although de facto segregation in housing, schooling, and church attendance is still the order of the day in much of U.S. society, numerous contemporary factors appear to shift and shape the relationships that African American teachers have with their African American students. The diminishing presence of African American teachers in U.S. schools is one such factor (Dilworth, 1988; National Collaborative on Diversity in the Teaching Force, 2004). Some have argued that “the historical, cultural model of Black teaching is being lost” (Ware, 2006, p. 430); in fact, after Brown, Du Bois (1960/2001) predicted that “Negro teachers will become rarer and in many cases disappear” (p. 195). Recent data indicate that 7.3% of the U.S. secondary school teaching force comprises African American teachers, while 15.7% of the secondary school student population comprises African American students (Education Statistics Services Institute, 2007). An additional factor is the potential influence of contemporary characterizations of African American youth, particularly African American males, as disengaged and uneducable on teacher expectations and instructional practice (Ogbu, 2003). Like all teachers, African American teachers are well aware of these characterizations and are as susceptible as non–African American teachers to viewing these characterizations as barriers to their attempts to building relationships with their students. Furthermore, the role and position of the school as a central institution in the African American community have changed over time, which in turn arguably influences the status and authority of African American teachers in the African American community. Last, as the immigrant populations of Latino/Hispanic and African students grow in U.S. schools, African American teachers may find that a focus on the experiences of their African American students may inappropriately exclude or silence the experiences of other marginalized groups represented in their classrooms.


Despite the complexities of contemporary contexts, analyses of effective African American teachers suggest that many African American teachers possess experiences, hold perspectives, and engage in practices that resonate with their African American students in important ways (Foster, 1994; J. Irvine, 2002). In terms of experience, it is possible that the African American teacher and/or his or her African American students may view themselves as having a common history and a common destiny, resulting in an intergroup interdependence. As a result, the African American teacher often found in the literature is portrayed as deliberately taking a caring stance toward his or her African American students (Foster, 1997), and, in turn, some African American students hold a particular reverence for the African American teacher. This intergroup interdependence may result in implicit practices employed by African American teachers, such as viewing themselves as “other mothers” (Foster, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 1994) or “other fathers” (Lynn, 2006a, 2006b) of their African American students, or more explicit practices, such as lecturing to their African American students on how their academic success (or failure) is critical to the viability of their personal futures, the futures of their families, and the future of the African American community (Foster, 1997).


It is also possible that the African American teacher serves as a model of a person academically successful in the discipline he or she is teaching; therefore, these teachers’ very existence serves as evidence that their African American students can be academically successful in the discipline. From this perspective, it could be argued that the African American teacher serves as a role model for his or her African American students. Furthermore, mentorship and advocacy by African American teachers are integral to helping African American students navigate unfamiliar school culture (J. Irvine, 1989).


In terms of resources used in practice, J. Irvine (2002) and Lee (1993, 2001) have identified salient cultural and historical commonalities and forms of cultural synchronization that may position African American teachers to engage in distinguishable forms of classroom discourse with their African American students. The discussion related to the resources that the African American teacher brings to his or her practice, however, becomes somewhat complicated when these possibilities are perceived as inevitabilities or as deterministic. This shared history and ancestry does not necessitate that African American teachers possess “inside information” about their African American students that prepares them to better teach African American students or deliberately engage in instructional practices that take common racialized group membership into account (e.g., Rist, 2000). Furthermore, as the perception that the African American community is becoming increasingly stratified by class and geography, and discourse pointing to the existence of a monolithic African American community, is challenged or falls out of vogue (McWhorter, 2000, 2005), the relationship between the African American teacher and his or her African American students is not easily articulated or understood. 


Despite these obvious complexities, research literature presents the African American teacher as a living concept, a hypothetical person constructed from thousands of individual cases representing a distinctive confluence of events, practices, responsibilities, and roles. As stated previously, however, this work has not typically focused on African American teachers within a particular academic discipline. Of interest to us, therefore, is the extent to which the African American teacher of mathematics can also be considered as a living concept and an important historical figure in the narrative of the mathematical education of African Americans. In response to this, we now turn to consider the role and work of the African American teachers in a mathematics-specific context.


WHY FOCUS ON AFRICAN AMERICAN TEACHERS IN A MATHEMATICS CONTEXT?


It is important to point out that our specification of mathematics as the academic discipline of focus is strategic and deliberate. Mathematics holds high rank in the academic hierarchy, is closely associated with power (Moses & Cobb, 2001) and intellect, and has been particularly inaccessible to African Americans throughout U.S. history.16 Furthermore, of all academic disciplines, mathematics is often characterized as “culture free” and “politically neutral,” with little regard to the ways students become socialized toward or away from high performance in mathematics through numerous daily interactions and social structures—peer associations, teacher–student interactions, community expectations, media representations, and parental influences (Voigt, 1994, 1996; Yackel & Cobb, 1996). Given that the mathematics education community is increasingly acknowledging the role of social interaction in mathematics learning and performance (Lerman, 2000), it is critical that these influential interactions be considered in their totality and be foregrounded alongside widely accepted influences on mathematics student achievement such as students’ prior mathematics achievement, student cognitive processing, curriculum exposure, and teachers’ mathematics-specific instructional practices. As difficult as it is to do, situating mathematics classroom interactions within the complexities of broader society—a society in which perspectives and perceptions of race, class, and gender deeply permeate human interaction and undergird institutional practices—is of critical importance if we are to truly make sense of how some students come to excel in mathematics in U.S. schools while other students do not.


One need not look far for evidence of the ways in which the historical and contemporary racial and social complexities in broader U.S. society influence the narrative of mathematics education and interactions in contemporary mathematics classrooms. From a historical perspective, comprehensive reviews of the history of mathematics education in the United States are consistently fashioned on the premise that America’s public education system, since inception, is a unitary, singular system that has served all its citizens equitably. In the written history of U.S. mathematics education and school mathematics (e.g., Stanic & Kilpatrick, 2003), there is rare if any mention of the mathematics experiences of African Americans in segregated schools or the extent to which critical milestones and movements that drastically influenced mathematics education policy and practice in White schools differentially influenced curriculum materials, content standards, and assessment practices in segregated Black schools (Bidwell & Clason, 1970; Klein, 2003). Frankly, one would assume from reading histories of U.S. mathematics education that, by omission of their experiences, African Americans’ mathematical experiences in segregated schools paralleled those of Whites. Yet readings of broader treatments of the U.S. educational system (Anderson, 1988), particularly as they describe differences between resources, roles, and purposes of the dual segregated system that existed prior to 1954 (and, in many communities, persists), suggest that the mathematics education of large numbers of African Americans and their offspring has a subtle, yet tangibly different trajectory than that of other subgroups of the U.S. population.


Fast-forwarding to contemporary times, it is evident that racial categorizations are primary filters through which we make sense of the nature and quality of mathematics teaching and learning in U.S. schools. Mathematics achievement gap discourse at the classroom, school, state, and national level points to the extent to which mathematics teaching and learning is a highly racialized experience for all students in U.S. schools (Gutiérrez, 2008; Martin, 2006). For example, an Education Trust (2001) news release stated,


By the time they reach 8th grade, poor and minority students nationally are about three years behind other students. By the time they reach 12th grade, those students are 4 years behind. Indeed, 17-year-old African American and Latino students have skills in math similar to those of 13-year-old Whites. (para. 4)


The language used here is startling and disturbing, regardless of the extent to which it truly captures trends in African American students’ underperformance relative to White students. Important questions to pose in response to such statements are: In what ways do the mathematical experiences of African American students differ from those of White students? How does this characterization of African American students influence teachers’ and students’ perceptions of the intellectual capacities of African American students? What resources serve to dismantle racialized hierarchies of mathematics ability? The news release suggests that subgroups of students at specific intersections of race and class have a history of limited access to particular mathematics experiences in their K–12 trajectory because of prior mathematical experiences, societal complexities, perceptions of ability, and institutional structures. Current disparities in achievement and experiences between subgroups of U.S. students not only describe racial subgroups’ capacity to perform in mathematical contexts but also tell us a great deal about the ways in which mathematics teaching and learning are inextricably and explicitly bound to notions and structures of intelligence, privilege, and power. The complexity of mathematics teaching and learning in the United States, therefore, makes them particularly suited to exploring the dynamics of micro- and macro-social, political, and historical forces.


In that it can be argued that students’ mathematical experiences in the United States have been highly racialized across time and continue to be so today (Martin, 2006, 2007, 2009), it is important to identify important sites of study that provide insights into how mathematics education, race, teacher practice, and students’ mathematics achievement and performance interact. One such site is the exploration of the work and role of African American mathematics teachers. Through the documenting of the experiences, perspectives, and practices of African American mathematics teachers, a valuable record of the ways African American mathematics teachers construct learning environments for their students can be established and added to the historical record.


Yet this work is not all strictly archival; it provides a foundation on which to consider deeply the role of the African American mathematics teacher as a representation of a unique set of historical experiences, cultural competencies, and knowledge domains. Furthermore, an understanding of the role of the African American mathematics teacher has the potential to clarify the ways teacher identity serves as a mediator in theories of student performance and underperformance, in particular, stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1998). It should be clarified that conceptualizing the role of the African American mathematics teacher is not analogous to essentializing the work of African American mathematics teachers in ways that reduce all African American mathematics teachers to a singular set of experiences, characteristics, behaviors, and perspectives. The heterogeneity of the African American experience prevents such broad generalizations (O’Connor, Lewis, & Mueller, 2007). Conceptualizing this role is the process of identifying and considering teacher characteristics, practices, and dispositions that are potentially meaningful for students, particularly African American students, in ways that support African American students’ capacity to participate and perform within the racialized contexts of mathematics education, the broader schooling experience, and broader society.


SITUATING THE AFRICAN AMERICAN MATHEMATICS TEACHER IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT


Based on this limited attention to the African American experience in the history of mathematics education, it is our stance that to meaningfully and responsibly conceptualize the role of African American mathematics teachers and better understand their work in U.S. schools, analytic approaches are needed that help us understand cases of African American mathematics teachers, like those of Ida Bell and Floyd Lee, as representations of a complex and ever-evolving series of intertwined contexts, forces, and events that no one individual African American mathematics teacher at any given time wholly captures. From this standpoint, to develop an understanding of features of this role, we must better articulate our understanding from empirical cases situated on multiple historical timelines.


In this subsection, we briefly discuss contexts, events, and forces that may have influenced the preparation, presence, role, and responsibilities of the African American mathematics teacher during different time periods in U.S. history. The contexts, events, and forces we explore are: (1) the history of the preparation, presence, role, and responsibilities of African American teachers; (2) historical shifts in mathematics education curriculum and policy; (3) the influence of technology and globalization on mathematics education; and (4) the evolution of the dual U.S. public educational system and its partial unification midway through the 20th century. Furthermore, in an effort to illustrate the salience of historical context, we identify “cases” of African American mathematics teachers within those time periods and consider how their work and role may have been influenced by relevant historical and social forces.


LATE 1800s TO EARLY 1900s


The public perception of mathematics, particularly advanced mathematics, has often vacillated according to the needs of the larger society (Garrett & Davis, 2003; Klein, 2003). As public high school enrollments increased at the close of the 19th century, the Committee of Ten in 1893 sought to create uniformity among American high school mathematics curricula (Garrett & Davis, 2003; National Education Association, 1894) and proposed a multitrack high school program for both college-bound and non-college-bound students. Despite the differences in course offerings, each track required that high school students experience an academic mathematics curriculum.


As industrialization took hold at the turn of the 20th century, the public’s perception of mathematics shifted; high school mathematics was increasingly being judged on its practical value and the extent to which it prepared young adults for vocations and the workplace. The Cardinal Principles Report of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, drafted in 1918, communicated a clear message in this regard: Students’ high school mathematical experiences should be differentiated to reflect their interests, capacities, and future endeavors, including a nonacademic approach to mathematics (Kliebard & Franklin, 2003). Around this time, vocational high schools began to emerge that were designed for students who were not destined for college; as a result, a wider range of mathematical courses were offered beside traditional academic mathematics courses. Formal preparation of mathematics teachers to teach in the growing numbers of high schools was minimal and scarce; as of 1900, only 10 U.S. institutions of higher learning (including normal schools) offered a course in the teaching of secondary mathematics (Donoghue, 2003).


During this same period (1890–1920), the education of African Americans experienced dramatic expansion through a combination of self-help, philanthropic organizations, and public funding (Anderson, 1988; Urban & Wagoner, 2009). Despite attempts by some during Reconstruction to establish a public school system that equitably served all U.S. citizens, a dual public school system emerged that served African Americans and Whites separately. A component of the argument to establish “separate but equal” U.S. educational systems rested on theories of heritability of intelligence, explicitly indicating that the intellectual capacities of African Americans were inferior to those of White European Americans. Of interest here is how the recommendations of the Committee of Ten of 1893, the Cardinal Principles of 1918, and the establishment of segregated public schools influenced the work of mathematics teachers and the mathematical experiences of students in the small number of African American high schools established and operating during this time.


A case in point is Anna Julia Cooper, teacher and principal of the M Street School in Washington DC (later to become Dunbar High School) who received her B.A. in mathematics in 1884 and her master’s in mathematics in 1887 from Oberlin College in Ohio. Her tenure as principal of the M Street School was mired in controversy, in that the White D.C. school board disagreed with M Street’s orientation toward rigorous coursework (including advanced mathematics) and preparing Black youth for college. For her intransigence, Cooper was eventually forced to resign. Our interest in Anna Cooper and other African American teachers and educational leaders trained in mathematics during that period is in our quest to better understand the ways that their praxis, their interactions with students, and their teaching philosophy were shaped by the historical forces of their time and reflected the role and purpose of mathematics in the African American community.


EARLY 1900s TO 1950s


In the early to mid-1900s, a large influx of immigrants seeking financial and educational opportunities sought new beginnings in the United States (Spring, 2001). Although their presence was often met with disdain from White Americans, public schooling was adjusted to meet the needs of the changing school population (Garrett & Davis, 2003; Spring, 2001). During this same period, African Americans were migrating to the North and Midwest in search of economic opportunity. During this time, known as the Great Migration, newly arrived southern African Americans transitioned from agrarian labor to machine and industrial labor in the Midwest and the North (Douglas, 2005). Although there has been research on the impact of the Great Migration on school demographics and teacher employment (Douglas, 2005), little attention has been given to whether migration, like immigration, had an impact on mathematics curriculum in the growing numbers of segregated public schools that served African Americans. Additionally, there is much to be learned with regard to how the northern migration of African Americans impacted the preparation and hiring of African American mathematics teachers in southern and northern U.S. cities and influenced what was perceived to be the role of the African American mathematics teacher during shifts in location and employment opportunities for large numbers of African Americans.


World War II greatly impacted the field of mathematics education, as the subject was brought to a prominent position in schools (Garrett & Davis, 2003). As the means of warfare became increasingly reliant on techno-scientific expertise, the need for preparation in mathematics was no longer questioned as it had been in earlier decades (Garrett & Davis, 2003). Mathematics education was associated with patriotic duty, as secondary students were being prepared to contribute to the war efforts. By the time of World War II, the majority of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) had been established and served as the primary source for training and recruiting African American teachers. Because the government has called for a more technologically skilled, mathematically proficient U.S. citizenry (Garrett & Davis, 2003), it is of interest to understand the extent to which African American high school students were included in this call. Furthermore, it is of interest to explore if and how HBCU mathematics teacher preparation and segregated African American high school mathematics curricula were modified to meet these needs. For example, Baker (2011) interviewed a former student who attended a segregated school in Virginia in the 1940s. The former student, John Brown, recounted how his mathematics teachers offered advanced courses despite the opposition of Southern states to authorizing advanced courses, particularly advanced courses that were not offered at White schools. He noted that although trigonometry was not an official part of the school curriculum, his teachers found a way to “slip it in.” To what extent were African American mathematics teachers during this period “slipping in” more advanced mathematics coursework, and for what purposes? In what ways did the structures of the dual public school system influence the work of African American mathematics teachers during this time?


1950s TO 1970s


During the Cold War of the 1950s, the mathematics education community was seen as integral to national defense. With the Russian launch of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite, in 1957, there was increased pressure placed on the U.S. mathematics education community to produce students who would help launch the United States into global competitiveness in terms of defense (Fey & Graeber, 2003; Garrett & Davis, 2003; Klein, 2003). The mathematics education community began to revise and update the mathematics curriculum to better reflect modern mathematical ideas, thus the development of what has come to be known as New Math. Highly influenced by mathematicians, New Math curricula placed heavy emphasis on conceptual understanding and deemphasized computational skill (Fey & Graeber, 2003; Klein, 2003). As a result, K–12 mathematics instruction included topics such as set theory and modular addition, with an emphasis on self-discovery—far from the curriculum of the past that emphasized rote, anti-intellectual practices (Klein, 2003). Groups such as the American Mathematical Society organized the School Mathematics Study Group, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) established the Secondary School Curriculum Project to ensure New Math curricular implementation across U.S. schools. One major outcome of this era was the introduction of calculus at the high school level (Fey & Graeber, 2003; Klein, 2003). New Math gave way to larger education movements, such as the Open Education Movement, which have been criticized for their lack of success with African American students (Delpit, 1986). Further, Ellis and Berry (2005) noted that although the leaders of the New Math era desired to produce more mathematicians and espoused access for students as one of their goals, this approach to mathematics “tended to be applied to males of the European extraction” (p. 10) and college-bound students.


While the 1950s and 1960s were a time of curricular reinvention in mathematics education, society at large was undergoing extreme social unrest as desegregation and the civil rights movement ushered in new ways of envisioning schools and communities. Public schooling served as a major battleground in the fight for equity. Public school districts desegregated over time and with more or less conflict, depending on geographical region and local politics. As schools slowly desegregated, many African American teachers, including mathematics teachers, lost jobs because of the closing of many high schools that served African American students. Still others were employed in often hostile desegregated school environments. An examination of cases of African American mathematics teachers during this period—teachers such as Barbara Vidrine, featured on the February 7, 1963, cover of Jet magazine (“Campus Queen,” 1963)—could reveal the complexities of this role during these turbulent times. Vidrine, a former Southern University beauty queen, began her mathematics teaching career in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1963. Our interest in Vidrine and other African American mathematics teachers in that era is focused on the ways in which the image and role of the African American mathematics teacher may have undergone transformation during these turbulent times. Did African American mathematics teachers have greater opportunity to teach in newly desegregated schools because of the perception of mathematics as “apolitical”? Or did the African American mathematics teacher have fewer opportunities because of the White community’s perceptions of African Americans as intellectually incapable?


1970s TO 2000


By the 1970s and 1980s, the New Math movement was on the decline. Some leaders in both the mathematics and general educational communities characterized New Math instruction as inappropriate for K–12 education because of its “sterile excess of terminology and symbolism” (Fey & Graeber, 2003, p. 532). Further, a report prepared by the National Advisory Committee on Mathematical Education concluded that New Math only had minimal influence on mathematics instruction in U.S. classrooms because many teachers still relied on traditional methods of instruction (Fey & Graeber, 2003). The period of decline of New Math has been characterized as the “back to basics” era of mathematics education (Fey & Graeber, 2003). In his overview of 21st-century mathematics education progress, Klein (2003) noted the reflection of educator Nancy Ichinaga, who suggested that open-ended New Math programs yielded negative results in her school, which had a large enrollment of students of color. Highly structured, traditionally focused mathematics instruction regained popularity. During this period, states began to create minimum competency exams and emphasize traditional mathematics curriculum.


As traditional, behavior- and mastery-objective-driven mathematics instruction permeated U.S. schools, public schools also saw a major shift in teaching demographics. Teaching in the African American community was once one of the only career options available to highly educated African Americans (Fultz, 1995), but new opportunities and the prominence and promise of affirmative action practices opened doors to new career options for college-educated African Americans. By the late 1980s, researchers problematized the lack of African Americans who voluntarily entered the teaching field (Graham, 1987; King, 1993). During this same period, the release of Asante’s Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change (1980) marked the beginning of an increase in private and public charter schools embracing Afrocentric philosophy and curricula explicitly designed to counterbalance dominant White male European discourses and worldviews with African-centered historical narratives, interpretation of phenomena, and contributions to technological advancement (Madhubuti & Madhubuti,1994; Murrell, 2002).


An example of an African American mathematics teacher during this era is Gloria Jean Merrieux (Peterek, 2009). Despite having other professional career opportunities available, Ms. Merrieux chose to teach because of the respect and admiration she held for her high school trigonometry teacher, Mr. John Duke. Her experiences growing up in segregation and living in the school community played a major role in shaping her culturally responsive teaching practices and interactions with her students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community. She was best known for her use of cultural referents to teach mathematics and for her efforts to simultaneously build her students’ racial and mathematics identities. Furthermore, Ms. Merrieux was known for her ability to reach the intellectual potential of students in mathematics who she believed were wrongfully placed in special education. Our interest in Ms. Merrieux (and the hundreds of other African American mathematics teachers of that time) centers on the extent to which her practice reflected the particular social and political forces of her era and what roles beyond mathematics teacher she embodied in the eyes of her African American students and the larger community.


The late 1980s marked another major shift in U.S. mathematics education as the NCTM produced The Agenda in Action, a predecessor to the 1989 and 2000 Standards (NCTM, 1989, 2000). This document placed emphasis on problem solving and meaningful calculator use (Fey & Graeber, 2003; Klein, 2003). Additionally, the 1989 NCTM Standards, which explicitly addressed equity in mathematics education, marked a shift in mathematics education. Although some scholars interpret the organization’s stance on equity as taking a color-blind approach in the Standards (Diversity in Mathematics Education, 2007), the NCTM’s explicit focus on equity marked a turn in the discussion of mathematics education, which had major implications for improving the quality of education for underperforming, underserved students. Simultaneously, racial comparisons of students’ mathematical achievement and performance emerged in the national educational discourse in response to indications that the mathematics achievement gap between African Americans and Whites appeared to be widening; this set the stage for future decades of educational reform efforts aimed at improving the mathematics achievement performance of all students in general, and African American and Latino student groups in particular. Tracking students into mathematics pathways based on prior performance and standardized assessments—a practice that often created segregated mathematics classrooms within desegregated schools—became the order of the day in most high schools across the United States (Oakes, 2005). In this context, it is of interest to consider the perceived role and responsibilities of the African American mathematics teacher and the particular knowledge and skill it was thought she brought to her practice at this time.


2000 AND BEYOND


Contemporary issues influenced by racial dynamics continue to shape mathematics instruction and mathematics teacher preparation. The accountability measures put in place by the U.S. Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind legislation (United States Congress, 2001) often put teachers under immense scrutiny and pressure to meet state-regulated mastery levels in mathematics. Like never before, students are identified, sorted, and instructed in schools based on their performance on standardized assessments, and the analysis of student mathematics achievement by racial subgroup is now an ongoing, consistent activity in the majority of U.S. schools and districts (Darling Hammond, 2007; Valli, Croninger, Chambliss, Graeber, & Buese, 2008). It can be argued that because many African American mathematics teachers choose to teach in settings populated by many students of color, they are highly valued and hold a unique and complicated position in the eyes of educational communities. A case of a teacher during this time can be found in Leavitt’s (2010) study of an African American female middle school mathematics teacher, Evelyn Lewiston. In the study, Ms. Lewiston describes the unique and complicated position she held as an African American woman teaching mathematics in a predominantly White working-class Italian community school called Greene School. In her effort to carry out her teaching responsibilities in a sometimes overtly racially hostile environment, Ms. Lewiston found herself consistently serving as an advocate and voice for students of color at Greene.


Our images of Ida Bell and Floyd Lee, as well as our previous discussion of the confluence of events that have shaped the mathematical experiences of African Americans, suggest that Ida and Floyd are products of and reflect particular moments. As an older African American mathematics teacher working in the segregated South, where racial hostility and explicit messages of African American intellectual inferiority were commonplace, Ida’s experiences, role, and work may have taken on features that influenced her students’ perspectives of and relationship with mathematics in ways that communicated the challenges, importance, potential, and affordances of acquiring mathematical proficiency for the African American community in the late 1940s. Floyd, a young African American male mathematics teacher during the first few years of the 21st century, is consistently held up as a contrast to the persistent contemporary images of the pathological, dysfunctional, uneducable, and disengaged African American male youth. Floyd, however, does not want his students to view his mathematical proficiency as remarkable or atypical; he believes that one aspect of his responsibility as an African American mathematics teacher is to serve as an agent that helps normalize high mathematics achievement among African American students and communicate to students that they can simultaneously be themselves and high-achieving mathematics learners. Situating Floyd in a historical context allows us to expand our view of his role and work; he is not simply an individual second-year teacher who is making an idiosyncratic decision to have speeches in his teaching; instead, he is an African American mathematics teacher who is enacting in the mathematics classroom traditions and roles that have been an important part of what it means to be an African American teacher.


Admittedly our discussion poses more questions in relation to the role of African American mathematics teachers in U.S schools than provides clear connections between historical context and praxis. However, it is our belief that situating these cases, and many others like them, in historical context helps us to better understand the role that the African American mathematics teacher has played in multiple historical narratives, including the evolution of U.S. mathematics education and the education of African Americans across time. Figure 1 illustrates important events along each of the four timelines and identifies where teachers in our discussion are “located” to illustrate the constellation of events that served as each teacher’s particular teaching context.


Figure 1. Historical context that may influence the preparation, presence, and role of the African American mathematics teacher in U.S. schools


[39_16840.htm_g/00002.jpg]


CONCLUSION


General calls to increase racial diversity in the U.S. teaching force are ever present (National Collaborative on Diversity in the Teaching Force, 2004), yet there has been little explicit theorizing as to the ways in which the particular experiences, features, skills, practices, and knowledge a diverse teaching force possesses are integrated into subject-specific theories of student learning and academic socialization. We contend that the role, responsibilities, status, position, and presence of the African American mathematics teacher have changed across time because of numerous historical and social shifts. However, despite these changes, we make two assertions about the African American mathematics teacher that help conceptualize this role as a theoretical construct. First, the African American mathematics teacher is a boundary spanner with membership in multiple communities—a mathematically proficient and intellectually powerful African American person within a historically disempowered African American community with a history of inaccessibility to and underperformance in mathematics. Second, through various implicit and explicit means and micro-interactions, the African American mathematics teacher has the potential to engage in liberatory mathematics pedagogy, a pedagogy that serves to dismantle “racialized hierarchies of mathematics ability” (Martin, 2006, 2007, 2009). We challenge ourselves and future researchers to consider the African American mathematics teacher as a conceptual entity, serving as a critical theoretical construct in evolving theories of student learning, participation, and performance that acknowledges and incorporates the inescapable dynamics of race, class, student identity, and teacher identity. Appreciation of this point suggests that the underrepresentation of African American teachers as compared with African American students is not simply a mildly unfortunate trend, but an issue that has important implications for future African American students’ access to and participation in mathematics and its connected disciplines—science, technology, and engineering.


Conceptualizations of the role of the African American mathematics teacher, however, must be carefully rendered and understood in our efforts to avoid oversimplification. Yet with a firm understanding of how social forces and historical events shape our conceptualization and how African American mathematics teachers operate within and across points in time, the study of the African American mathematics teacher has the potential to help us make sense of the complexities of teaching mathematics in racialized schooling spaces that continually, subtly, and, at times, explicitly reify racial hierarchies of mathematical access and ability.


We also challenge ourselves and other researchers, in their quests to better understand why mathematics teachers do the things they do, to avoid consigning race to “context” and overlooking its powerful influence on teacher’s identity and practice. In keeping with Lerman’s call (2000) for mathematics education researchers “to develop accounts that bring together agency, individual trajectories, and the cultural, historical, and social origins of the way people think, behave, reason, and understand the world” (p. 36), it is our hope that mathematics education researchers will interrogate, challenge, critique, and build on conceptualizations of the African American mathematics teacher as an entity that represents a unique confluence of experiences, perspectives, dispositions, and knowledge domains critical to the education of students. Conceptualization of the role of the African American mathematics teacher relies on our capacity to collect, examine, and learn from individual empirical cases of African American mathematics teachers situated in complex historical and social contexts. The reader should note that, because of the paucity of documented histories of African American mathematics teachers during segregation, we found it necessary to form a composite African American mathematics teacher in that era, Ida, for the purposes of bringing her role and work to life. It is our hope that researchers engage in efforts to capture and document the stories of African American mathematics teachers across multiple generations through oral histories and biographies so that in future explorations of the changing role of the African American mathematics teacher, there will be no need to develop composites—a record of their stories and voices will exist.


Data exist to begin this work. Oral history collections containing the stories of African American teachers exist throughout the country, yet have not been filtered to identify and study the role and work of African American mathematics teachers. Collections such as the Virginia Black History Archives at Virginia Commonwealth University, the Columbia University Columbia Center for Oral History, the New York Public Library Black Woman Oral History Project, and the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture Oral History/Video Documentation Program are all publicly available. Along with these existing sites of research, it will be critical to engage in new efforts to document the stories of African American mathematics teachers. In an effort to gather and organize these stories, researchers at the University of Maryland’s Center for Mathematics Education are structuring a data archive on Black mathematics teachers, of which one data corpus will consist of retrospective interviews with African American mathematics teachers who taught in segregated schools in the United States and, in some cases, in desegregated schools later in their careers. This project has an urgent timeline, in that the teachers with these experiences are mainly in their 70s and 80s. We anticipate that the establishment of such an archive can serve as a resource to scholars who have interests in exploring the role and work of these important, yet mostly silent, figures in the African American education narrative.


Acknowledgments


This work was developed through the support of a grant from the National Science Foundation, Grant No. DRL 0426253. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the National Science Foundation.


Notes


1. Ida Bell is a fictional character based on a synthesis of literature related to African American teachers and educational trends prior to the 1954 Brown v. Board decision. Ida was constructed to help highlight the similarities and distinct differences between African American teachers’ backgrounds, experiences, and teaching contexts historically and presently.

2. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the Fourteenth Amendment did not require facilities to be racially integrated as long as segregated facilities were deemed “equal.” The “separate but equal” doctrine prevailed for over a half-century until, in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court found that racially separate facilities were inherently unequal. Prior to the 1954 ruling, African American students in the South were taught almost exclusively by African American teachers (Anderson, 1988).

3. In a 1933 U.S. Department of Education report that examined the education of African American teachers, Caliver noted that there were “less marked differences in education preparation between the Negro high-school teachers and the white high-school teachers than was found in the case of the elementary teachers” (p. 31). For example, in 1930, approximately 71% of African American secondary teachers had attained three to four years of college as compared with approximately 62% of White teachers. The larger disparity was in graduate education, where the percentage of White teachers completing graduate work (23.5%) was more than double that of African Americans (10.6%; Caliver, 1933).

4. The relationships between African American teachers and the communities in which they taught are complicated, particularly when African American teachers born and trained in the North took teaching positions in Southern communities. The general sense, however, is that the African American teacher was well respected within the local communities in which they taught (Fairclough, 2007).

5. Public rhetoric and media representations explicitly suggesting genetic and intellectual inferiority of African Americans were commonplace in the United States throughout the 18th, 19th, and mid-20th centuries (Ehrlich & Feldman, 1977;  Gould, 1996).

6. School-based, comprehensive testing programs resulting in comparisons of achievement scores between racial and ethnic groups did not emerge in most of the United States until the late 1970s. By 1980, 37 U.S. states had taken action to mandate minimum competency standards for grade-to-grade promotion or high school graduation. The adoption of assessment programs associated with minimum competency standards, however, varied by state (Giordano, 2005).

7. Some southern African American high schools under segregation served as a viable community resource through which the building of character, pride, and ethics in students was central to the school’s mission (Walker, 1996).

8. Under the dual school system in the South, per-pupil expenditures for White students were typically far greater than expenditures for African American students (Anderson, 1988; Kluger, 1975).

9. Records indicate that during segregation, many African American teachers formed small groups to revise curriculum, to create contextualized problems based on home situations and students’ experiences, to study methods to improve instruction, and to develop tests to measure their students’ basic skills as a means to set up remedial programs (Crewe, 1949).

10. Floyd Lee is a participant in the Case Studies of Urban Algebra I Mathematics Teachers Project at the University of Maryland–College Park Center for Mathematics Education. The authors of this article served on the research team associated with this project.

11. Once a predominantly White district, many Whites migrated to surrounding districts in the mid-1970s as the number of middle-class African American families steadily increased. Over the past decade, gentrification of the proximal urban center has resulted in the relocation of a large number poor African Americans into the area. Furthermore, the district has experienced a dramatic increase in Latino immigrants in the past decade. As a result, the district is predominantly minority, yet household income is wide ranging, from working poor to securely upper middle class.

12. There is palpable frustration and concern in many African American communities related to the academic underperformance of African American students. Explanatory theories abound, including those suggesting that one contributing factor is that large numbers of African American students, particularly male students, are disproportionately and chronically “disengaged” from the schooling process (Ogbu, 2003).

13. For a brief overview of research on African American male teachers, see Lynn, 2006a, and Lynn, 2006b.

14. As large numbers of African American teachers were displaced as a result of school desegregation, and professional opportunities for African Americans expanded and became more accessible during the 1970s and 1980s, teaching, once an esteemed and sought after profession in the African American community, appears to have lost status and standing (King, 1993; Tilman, 2004).

15. School reform efforts explicitly focused on improving achievement in low-performing schools through allocation of resources and implementation of instructional interventions disproportionately affect schools with high populations of students of color and students from low-income households (Henig, Hula, Orr, & Pedescleaux, 2001).

16. Even in contemporary times, the number of African Americans earning PhDs in the mathematical sciences has remained relatively small. For example, in 1993, 14 PhDs in mathematical sciences were earned by African Americans (1.4% of all PhDs in mathematical sciences). In 2002, 14 of 917 PhDs in mathematical sciences, or 3.2%, were earned by African Americans (Medina, 2004).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 2, 2013, p. 1-29
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16840, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:35:07 AM

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About the Author
  • Lawrence Clark
    University of Maryland, College Park
    E-mail Author
    LAWRENCE M. CLARK is an assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of Maryland, College Park. He conducts both quantitative and qualitative research, with a focus on exploring the relationships between mathematics teachers’ experiences, knowledge domains, and beliefs, particularly in the contexts of urban schools. Furthermore, a thread of his research explores the work and role of African American mathematics teachers in the U.S. education narrative. His most recent publications include “Examining Dilemmas of Practice Associated With Integrating Technology Into Mathematics Classrooms Serving Urban Students” (w/ A. B. Anthony, Urban Education) and “Researching African American Mathematics Teachers of African American Students: Conceptual and Methodological Considerations” (w/ W. Johnson & D. Chazan, in D. Martin (Ed.), Mathematics Teaching, Learning, and Liberation in the Lives of Black Children).
  • Toya Jones Frank
    University of Maryland, College Park
    E-mail Author
    TOYA JONES FRANK is a doctoral candidate in the Center for Mathematics Education at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests include teacher beliefs about the teaching and learning of mathematics and student ability, issues of equity in mathematics education as they relate to access to opportunities to learn, and African American mathematics teachers’ and students’ access to mathematics from a historical perspective.
  • Julius Davis
    Bowie State University
    E-mail Author
    JULIUS DAVIS is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Bowie State University in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Professional Development. He has two main areas of research that focus on African American students and African American mathematics teachers. His research of African American students emanated from his dissertation research of Black middle school students’ lived realities and mathematics education. He used critical race theory to examine the role of race, racism, class, and power in determining the type of education African American students received in mathematics. He coauthored “Racism, Assessment, and Instructional Practices: Implications for Mathematics Teachers of African American students” in the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education. While working as a research assistant in the Center for Mathematics Education at the University of Maryland, College Park, he developed research exploring the historical and contemporary experiences and practices of African American mathematics teachers.
 
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