Newswise — Educators call ninth-grade algebra the most frequently failed high-school course and a "gateway class" -- a required class in which success predicts graduation. Failure in the subject leads many students to drop out, graduate late, or lose opportunities for higher education.

Algebra is a particular obstacle to classroom participation and math achievement among black students, says a University of Illinois at Chicago student who has received a $90,000, three-year National Science Foundation fellowship to study algebra learning among African-American students.

Maisie Gholson, a third-year doctoral student in mathematics education, will analyze the impact of talk -- including lectures, classroom discussion and student-to-student conversation -- in algebra classes throughout an academic year in urban high schools that are at least 25 percent African American.

"All learning happens through talk, and everyday classroom talk affects the way African-American students see themselves, racially and academically," Gholson said.

Outside of class, Gholson will interview teachers and students individually.

She plans to assess students' racial identity formation through her observation and the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity -- a questionnaire widely used by social science researchers.

Gholson says she ascribes to the view of civil rights leader Bob Moses, founder of a math literacy program called the Algebra Project, that algebra learning is a civil right.

"Usually we don't study black students in and of themselves. We make assumptions about them. The mathematical experiences of black students are understood primarily in terms of outcomes, and those outcomes are typically compared to those of white students and referred to as achievement gaps," Gholson said.

"A clear and deep understanding of how African-American students develop intellectually and socially, in the classroom in real time, will support efforts to improve teaching practices for historically marginalized students," she said.

Gholson is conducting coursework related to the research this fall. She expects to begin fieldwork next spring.

UIC ranks among the nation's leading research universities and is Chicago's largest university with 27,000 students, 12,000 faculty and staff, 15 colleges and the state's major public medical center. A hallmark of the campus is the Great Cities Commitment, through which UIC faculty, students and staff engage with community, corporate, foundation and government partners in hundreds of programs to improve the quality of life in metropolitan areas around the world.

For more information about UIC, please visit www.uic.edu

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