Building Mathematics Learning Communities: Improving Outcomes in Urban High Schools

reviewed by Anna Bornino-Glusac - July 12, 2012

coverTitle: Building Mathematics Learning Communities: Improving Outcomes in Urban High Schools
Author(s): Erica N. Walker
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807753289, Pages: 176, Year: 2012
Search for book at

Erica N. Walker has written a book based on the valid premise that building on students’ strengths rather than their weaknesses may be a better approach to increasing student achievement in mathematics. Her approach is to use learning communities: collaborative communities that support mathematics achievement both inside and outside of school. Most research to this day has emphasized methods of increasing student success by finding ways to facilitate mathematical conceptual understanding and/or to correct student procedural errors.

Research for this study was completed at Lowell High School, a small (300 students) public, urban minority school in New York City that was highly valued by neighborhood parents. This raises the question as to whether the results of this research will easily transfer to other environments, notably to the typical large, public, urban minority high schools that constitute the majority of urban schools. In these schools, the student population typically numbers in the thousands. Anecdotally, one can also support the conclusion that many parents do not value their local schools, an obstacle to be confronted in obtaining student participation.


The student ethnic diversity at Lowell (97% black and Hispanic) is typical of many urban schools. Much of Walker’s research is completed through questionnaires, interviews and student maps.  Thus, much of her research is based on qualitative data.

This research places great emphasis on the fact that teacher expectations are low for Hispanic and black students and that this attitude fosters low achievement. Students can perceive such an attitude even through nonverbal communication. This reviewer has encountered such attitudes in various neighborhoods throughout the large Los Angeles school district over a period of 38 years as a teacher and as an instructional coach and it seems to be pervasive in its application to middle and lower class students of other ethnicities as well. Thus, Walker’s conclusion that teacher expectation greatly influences student success appears to be valid. However, it must be applied to a more inclusive student population. She also touches on the differences in the range of materials available to poor students as compared to students in wealthier communities.

Walker’s peer tutoring program at Lowell High employed “high-achieving” students selected on the basis of teacher recommendation and other criteria.  Six students, five Hispanic and one African American, were trained and then made available to tutees three times per week after school. They also participated in the preparation of materials used to recruit tutees. These tutors were assisted by several graduate student “advisors.” Due to educational code requirements, one credentialed teacher was also present in the classroom as a supervisor. Six tutors worked with tutees on a one-to-one basis with an average of 8-10 tutees per week, increasing to about 20 tutees per week by the end of the program.

If learning communities are to be successful, students must be willing, and encouraged to participate. Observation indicates that very few students in large urban schools remain on campus unless it is to participate in extracurricular activities such as athletics. High school students in poverty areas often work to supplement their families’ incomes. At one school, parents refused to let their children attend after school tutoring because they were fearful of their children’s safety. Lack of participation can undermine the program’s success.

More details on the quantitative part of the research would be helpful. A further description of the data, perhaps including graphs illustrating student achievement prior to and after participation in tutoring would be helpful. Anecdotal evidence received from interviews and questionnaires has some value in the interpretation of the results, but additional concrete data applied in an unbiased manner would provide more support to the research outcomes of the program. Data was cited regarding the improved student achievement in the Regents exams, but seemed incomplete. More information regarding the development and the use of peer tutoring materials should be part of the main body of the book.

Previous research conducted by others (e.g. Escalante and Dirman, Gutierrez, Darling-Hammond) seems to dominate this book. Research is important for substantiation of the author’s premise. However, constant reference to the work of others detracts from the author’s efforts to promote the thesis of the book that learning communities, in this instance peer tutoring groups, can build on student strengths. Is this concept sufficiently unique (the addition of pre-service teachers to the program as advisors and the use of “high-achieving” students as tutors) to devote an entire book to it? Furthermore, it is not clear to whom this work is directed. Is it a textbook for pre-service teachers? Is it a resource for in-service teachers, perhaps as part of a training program with an instructional coach or other professional development leader? A teacher would have great difficulty in remaining engaged in this book.

It would appear that applying this research to both a large urban public high school and to a suburban high school would allow for a more comprehensive view of the learning communities and, thus a better analysis as to the efficacy of this approach to student learning. Perhaps this study deserves a revisit.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 12, 2012 ID Number: 16821, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 9:30:44 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review