According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are approximately 3,000 mathematicians employed in the United States,. The number of those who are Black or African American, in government parlance, are too few to estimate. There are 28,000 actuaries, who are basically mathematicians who apply their training to insurance matters. The number of those who are Black or African American are too few to estimate. There are 29,000 computer and information research scientists. The number of those who are Black or African American are too few to estimate.
Which brings us to the latest data release from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which shows that there has been no improvement, indeed, a slight decline, nationally, in eighth grade mathematics proficiency. Forty-four percent of White students scored at the proficient or above level in 2013, while 42 percent did so in 2015. Fourteen percent of Black students scored at the proficient or above level in 2013, while 12 percent did so in 2015. The racial gap, therefore, was 30 percent points in both years. In short, no change.
Both Black and White students had better chances of scoring at the proficient or above level in fourth grade than in grade eight: Nineteen percent and 51 percent respectively. However, despite some narrowing between 2013 and 2015, for the most part attributable to a decline in White scores. The racial gap in fourth grade was 32 percent points.
It is futile to attempt to find a reason for the low levels of Black mathematical proficiency and the large racial gaps in the national data, although the usual suspects immediately blame the Common Core or students not taking the NAEP seriously (assuming that they did take the exercise seriously in 2013, but changed their minds in 2015). Racism works in this country not by means of vague institutional forces and traditions, but through a series of decisions made by identifiable individuals. Therefore, it is at least potentially more useful to look at the data by school district.
White male students in the Boston, Charlotte and Chicago schools were more likely than not to score at or above the proficient level in 2015. White male students in the Hillsborough, Florida, Miami-Dade, New York City and San Diego systems came in at the 40-50 percent range. White female students tended to have equal or higher scores in each instance, with a remarkable three-quarters at the proficient level in 2015 in Boston and Chicago. Percentages of White male students reaching proficiency in eighth-grade math improved in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Jefferson County (Kentucky), and Miami (these Chicago students showing incredible improvement from 45 percent to 68 percent between 2013 and 2015), as did White female students in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago (again 23 percent points), Cleveland, Jefferson County, Miami, Philadelphia and San Diego.
None of the districts reported on by NAEP showed 20 percent or higher rates of proficiency for male Black students in 2015, Boston having declined from 21 percent in 2013 to 18 percent, Charlotte from 18 percent to 14 percent. Chicago “improved” from nine percent proficient to 13 percent. Black male students in Atlanta, Baltimore, DC, Jefferson County, Miami, and Philadelphia did not break 10 percent, while Cleveland and Detroit were at half that level. Milwaukee, which had been only able to educate five percent of its Black male and four percent of its Black female students to grade level in eighth-grade mathematics in 2013 did not report data for 2015. Only Detroit and New York City showed improvement from 2013 for male Black students (one percent point each), and Atlanta and Los Angeles for female Black students. Declines ranged up to six percentage points (Dallas Black female students).
The gap in the percentages of male students proficient in eighth grade math between White and Black students in 2015 ranged from 18 percent points (Cleveland and Philadelphia) to 72 percent points in Atlanta and 55 percent points in Charlotte and Chicago. For female students the range was between 16 percent points in Cleveland to 66 percent in Chicago and 65 percent points in Atlanta. For male students the gap narrowed between 2013 and 2015 in Hillsborough (2 percent points), New York City (seven percentage points) and Philadelphia (four percent points). Elsewhere it widened, by 19 percent points in Chicago and 15 percent in Atlanta, less elsewhere. For female students the gap narrowed in Los Angeles (13 percent) and New York City (12 percent points), less in other districts, and widened by 24 percent points in Chicago and 11 percent points in Boston.
Time to name names, or, at least, districts.
Schools in Atlanta, Charlotte and Chicago can bring most of their White students to proficiency or above in eighth grade mathematics, but do not do so for most of their Black students. [The Chicago data, especially the change between 2013 and 2015, looks rather odd, doesn’t it?] Charlotte is a good case study. It is fairly well-balanced by race and ethnicity, unlike, say, Atlanta. It should be able to close its enormous racial gap in educational achievement. Why hasn’t it?
Then there is good old Milwaukee, the subject of earlier Dropout Nation reports, for which there is no 2015 data. If you don’t have anything good to say, I guess. The districts with the narrowest gaps, such as Cleveland and Philadelphia, seem to achieve this by bringing very few White students to proficiency, as well as hardly any Black students. Those districts, along with Detroit, Miami-Dade and Milwaukee, are good candidates for declarations of educational emergencies.
If Black eighth-grade students are not at grade level in mathematics, there is little chance that they will be employable, as adults, in occupations requiring knowledge of mathematics. A century ago this hardly mattered. Today it is increasingly vital.
Recent research has focused on the positive effects of high quality pre-school, pre-school beginning as early as possible, with the emphasis on “high quality.” Such investments even the playing field for children from families without highly educated parents, without significant financial resources. Other research has shown that compensatory investments in teacher training, facilities, and similar well-known variables have strongly positive effects. Expanding opportunities for black and other minority children are also helpful.
Decision-makers, such as school superintendents, boards of education, state legislators, decide from term to term whether to make those investments. Deciding not to do so is a decision to increase investments in prisons, not to put too fine as point on it. The individuals who make those decisions should be held accountable for doing so.