Campus News

Summer camp to address gap in math achievement


Published November 17, 2016

“Common Core standards highlight that mathematical literacy is a necessity to be a functioning member of U.S. society. However, there are significant racial gaps in math achievement.”
Ji-Won Son, assistant professor
Department of Learning and Instruction

A grant to boost the mathematical abilities of disadvantaged students will help level the playing field for 150 city girls this summer, thanks to a faculty member in the Graduate School of Education who’s “deeply concerned” a quality education is an opportunity only afforded to a “lucky few.”

The one-year Cullen Foundation grant, the first for a GSE faculty member, will be used to support a new math program in July for girls ages 10 to 14 and entering grades five through eight at Buffalo’s Futures Academy, Enterprise Charter School and Westminster Community Charter School.

“Common Core standards highlight that mathematical literacy is a necessity to be a functioning member of U.S. society,” says Ji-Won Son, assistant professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction. “However, there are significant racial gaps in math achievement.”
Too often, she says, disadvantaged minority students miss out on the math education available to others who are more fortunate.
“The lucky few are often determined by zip code, economic status and race,” says Son, who aimed to address the discrepancy and injustice by applying for the grant from the Cullen Foundation, an organization interested in providing out-of-school opportunities to assist disadvantaged students.

The summer math program will reinforce basic math skills and improve critical thinking and reasoning skills, specifically relating to fraction operations.

The students at the three Buffalo schools come from populations that have demonstrated gaps in math achievement, according to Son. For example, 81 percent of students at Future’s Academy are African-American and 89 percent come from economically disadvantaged families.

“Math achievement gaps are apparent at these schools,” Son says. “Common Core standards state that ‘all students must have the opportunity to focus on critical thinking and reasoning,’ requiring students to be able to do more than recall facts and apply algorithms.

“For girls to improve in math, it is critical that instructional methods focus on inquiry and promote thinking and reasoning,” she says.

The one-year grant earned the praise of Jaekyung Lee, professor and dean of the Graduate School of Education.

“Ji-Won’s project is very timely and important,” Lee says, “since it will help address the problem of gender gap in STEM field by testing the efficacy of project-based math education program for girls.”

Three GSE doctoral students in mathematics education will serve as instructors for the summer program, along with six teaching assistants. An important part of the grant will be giving these UB students important hands-on learning opportunities, Son says.

Participants will be divided into three groups — 50 students per group — and will take part in one of three sessions. In each session, the 50 students will be divided into three groups of 16-17 students and work with one program instructor with two teaching assistants for six hours a day — 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. — for five days.

“Access to high-quality education is critical for an individual and a community’s success,” says Son. “Communities in poverty often exist in isolation, even when they’re geographically situated alongside untapped resources. Similarly, schools labeled as failing tend to insulate themselves against further public criticism by limiting opportunities for outreach and community engagement.”

What’s at stake are what she calls the “significant racial and gender gaps in math achievement.”

“Our program intends to address these concerns by providing a unique summer learning opportunity for 150 underrepresented students in three schools where none currently exist,” says Son. “We expect that the resulting project-based learning will provide instructional continuity and student engagement during the summer, creating a model for future summer collaboration between UB and the schools.”

Son joined the UB faculty after spending five years at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She received a doctorate from Michigan State University in 2008 with an emphasis in mathematics education.

Her research focuses on the intersection of mathematics education and curriculum and instruction. Her main research interests include mathematics textbook analysis (learning opportunities provided to students by textbooks), teachers’ curriculum use (how teachers read and use mathematical curriculum and textbooks), teacher learning (how pre-service and in-service teachers learn to interpret and respond to student thinking) and international comparative studies (whether there is any difference in students’ mathematical learning opportunities and teaching approaches among different countries.

Son notes the results from national and international studies consistently show significant gender differences in mathematics achievement favoring boys. Gender and racial differences in mathematics achievement become apparent at the secondary school level when female students begin to exhibit less confidence in their mathematics ability and perform lower than males on problem-solving and higher level mathematics tasks, she says.

Recognizing these gaps in achievement, Son has looked for better ways to improve students’ mathematical understanding, especially for underrepresented girls, through her research.

For more information and to register, visit the program's website.