Public Release: 

Math Department Culture May Be Key To Student Advancement

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Higher math is becoming more essential in more careers, yet too many high school students don't advance beyond first-year algebra.

Some of the reasons might be found in the practices, policies and culture of high school math departments, says Rochelle Gutiérrez, a University of Illinois professor of education.

Gutiérrez, a former math teacher, extensively studied eight public schools in different parts of the United States, four identified as above average and four below average at moving more students into advanced math courses. All were chosen because they enrolled a significant percentage of low-income and minority (Latino and African-American) students, who traditionally take fewer high-level courses and score lower on standardized math tests than their white counterparts.

She labeled the above-average schools and their math departments as "organized for advancement," or OFA, and sought to find the factors that separated them from their below-average, or non-OFA, counterparts. Through numerous interviews and other research, she found differences in curriculum offerings, graduation requirements and teacher expectations of students, among other factors.

The OFA departments, for example, generally offered fewer choices at the lower level of courses and a much greater ratio of advanced courses to lower-level courses. By combining this with a higher, three-year math requirement for graduation, these departments forced students to take at least some advanced math, rather than just more math at the lower level. Also, "teachers believed students could realistically achieve such goals and were committed to supporting them," Gutiérrez said.

One of the most clear-cut differences between the OFA and non-OFA departments, however, was in their policies toward rotation of courses among teachers, said Gutiérrez.

All four of the OFA departments had a regular rotation. The policy was informal and part of the department culture, she said. "They had collectively decided that it was important for teachers, and for students, to be able to be exposed to a variety of atmospheres because it helped keep things fresh." She observed, however, that the regular rotation also gave teachers more perspective on the collective enterprise of math education. As a result, they took a greater interest in the overall success of the program and were less likely to blame their students' problems on poor preparation in previous classes.

In contrast, all four of the other departments had no real course rotation, Gutiérrez noted. "It was very striking to me that in three of the four, the chairperson was teaching the pre-calculus and calculus classes every year," she said. Less-experienced teachers who taught the same lower-level courses each year saw it as part of "paying their dues," supported the system and did not see benefits to rotation.

Gutiérrez teaches in the U. of I. department of curriculum and instruction. Among the courses she teaches is issues in urban education. Her research was published in the Journal of Curriculum Studies.

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