Achievement of Traditionally Underserved Students

In the past, the academic success of traditionally underserved students (racial and language minorities, females, and students of low socioeconomic background) was not a priority, even though these students did not score well on assessments of needed skills (Oakes, 1990; Secada, 1992; Ladson- Billings, 1998).

A focus on African Americans as a representative group provides a clearer perspective on this issue. In 1994, Ladson-Billings wrote:

Given the long history of the poor performance of African American students one might ask why almost no literature exists to address their specific educational needs. One reason is a stubborn refusal in American Education to recognize African Americans as a distinct cultural group. While it is recognized that African American make up a distinct racial group, the acknowledgment that this racial group has a distinct culture, is still not recognized. It is presumed that African American children are exactly like white children but just need a little extra help.


We can extend Ladson-Billings’s statement to any minority group. Even in the case of, say, English learners, where a different culture is uncontestable, that “little extra help,” according to Moschkovich

(1999), is often perceived as help with learning English. Yet Moschkovich (1999) reports that “in order to support English learners in learning mathematics, it is crucial to understand not only the difficulties they face but also the resources they use to communicate mathematically” (86). As an example, she cites how the phrase, “Give me a quarter” differs in meaning depending on the context, for example, of a vending machine or a slice of pizza. To complicate matters, I add that for a Haitian student, the Creole literal translation of the phrase, “Give me a quarter of your pizza,” is “Banm ou ka pitza oua,” which means, “Give me just a tiny piece of your pizza.” Interestingly, the problem of context resulting in confusion for non-ELL college students is reported in a study by Lew et al. (2016). The researchers found that a reason why college students may not have learned from the lectures of a mathematics professor, who was regarded as an excellent teacher by his peers, was in students’ not having the same understanding as the professor when he used informal English language such as small to express the technical term arbitrarily small in mathematics (183). Given that participants in this study were not ELLs, one can certainly agree with Moschkovich (2012) when she writes of the challenge for ELLs to be mathematically precise in their language: “The ambiguity and multiplicity of meanings in everyday language should be recognized and treated not as a failure to be mathematically precise but as fundamental to making sense of mathematical meanings and to learning mathematics with understanding” (23).

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