Educational innovations -- both in teaching and studying -- help minorities shine scholastically
By Annie Nakao, Examiner Staff
When then-UC-Berkeley mathematician Uri Treisman moved in with 20 Cantonese-speaking Chinese students in the 1970s, he developed more than an addiction to steaming bowls of jook and crispy gai lan.
His research on the study habits of Asian, as well as African American, students was the genesis of hundreds of programs across the country that help minority students excel in college.
"We're not looking at a silver bullet, but a lot's been learned," said Treisman, now a math professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "We know that collaborative learning is a small piece of what needs to be done."
Treisman-inspired, multiethnic honors programs are only part of the patchwork of efforts nationwide to close the persistent gaps in the academic achievement of African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans -- even those from middle-class families.
Others include university-sponsored courses that prepare promising high school students for the rigors of college, middle-school curricula changes to better prepare children for high school college prep courses, educator workshops on effective strategies for teaching black kids and supplemental programs like after-school and weekend classes and summer schools.
At the college level, Treisman and others found success in a simple idea: get a small group of students to learn collaboratively in a multiethnic, honors-like program in calculus or other demanding math and science courses.
"Students who work in isolation tend to believe that ability is the only issue," Treisman said.
Besides learning that such subjects are "arbitrarily hard," they also get powerful new perspectives on each other.
"Black kids can see Asian kids screw up, Asian kids can see black kids do better than them," Treisman said. "This mythology-busting has a very powerful effect on students, in addition to the fact that they can learn from each other."
Power of peer networks The power of academic peer networks became evident to Treisman in his unorthodox research in the 1970s, when he moved in with the 20 Chinese students, and then 20 black students, for 18 months.
What he found was that the social peer groups of blacks tended to be more organized around non-academic issues.
Chinese students also had many social peer groups, but one was invariably focused on academics and it was quite sophisticated in organization.
"They did a lot of work alone," Treisman said. "But there was always a group that focused on helping people get through these courses. Often, someone's cousin would show at night who had taken this or that professor before. I came to understand its power."
Multiethnic peer groups are especially critical for non-Asian minorities on predominantly white campuses, he said.
Navigating the boundaries
"These kids live in several different worlds at once," said Treisman. "They have to learn to navigate the boundaries around these worlds."
That might contribute to why blacks, Latinos and Native Americans consistently underperform in college.
Blacks, for example, are more likely to drop out of college -- 62 percent vs. 41 percent for whites. And their college grade-point average is two-thirds of a grade lower than that of whites.
In some cases, even confident, well-prepared minorities might "choke" in testing or classroom situations in which they fear confirming stereotypes that blacks don't do well academically, according to a theory borne out by the research of Stanford University psychologist Claude Steele.
That may be why Treisman-like campus peer groups are much more successful than those with a remedial approach -- they assume students are able to do challenging work.
Financial aid, group study Similar efforts have blossomed elsewhere. An example: the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.
Seeking to boost the number of non-Asian minorities in science and math, the program recruits top African American students and offers them financial aid, group study programs and summer internships.
Another program at UC-Davis has spurred the number of high-performing minority biology majors at that campus.
Ten years ago, Merna Villarejo, then associate dean of biological sciences, noted that many minority biology students -- typically from schools with weak science programs -- were on the verge of failing.
With Villarejo's lead, the campus created the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program. It offerred underrepresented minorities and disadvantaged students a rigorous, non-credit, pre-chemistry course, academic counseling and lab experience.
The results have been impressive. Last year, while the average grade in general chemistry was a C+, 39 percent of those in the program earned A's and 82 percent earned A's or B's.
Pre-College Academy And there are other programs targeting high school students.
Mishea McCoy, 18, is ranked 19th out of 324 students at Richmond's De Anza High School, where she is a senior.
With a 3.93 GPA, Mishea is in honors English and advanced placement courses in literature, biology and government at De Anza. She also takes calculus and statistics at Contra Costa College.
In summer 1996, Mishea was selected to attend the Pre-College Academy, a summer enrichment program at UC-Berkeley. The program is part of UC's Early Admissions Opportunity Program (EAOP) for outstanding high school students.
At the time, Mishea had been attending another East Bay high school and she had come to "dread" her math classes.
"I knew what I was capable of but the teacher made it his business to discourage me," she said, preferring not to name the school or the teacher. "It affected me."
Hundreds of outreach programs At EAOP, Mishea regained her confidence, and was named outstanding calculus student in the program.
EAOP is one of hundreds of UC outreach programs aimed at getting more underrepresented minorities eligible for UC and other colleges.
Another is the Mathematics, Engineering & Science Achievement statewide program (MESA), which targets middle and high school students interested in math and science.
The future ability of such programs to recruit the same number of minorities as before is uncertain since affirmative action has been barred, both by Proposition 209 and UC regents.
The bans have since prompted outreach programs to change their focus to disadvantage, not race, which could harm the chances of middle-class minorities.
School reform projects efforts in the public schools might gradually decrease the need for such endangered college programs.
Although still quite limited in scope, several projects aimed at school reform are having results.
One is the California Academy Partnership Program (CAPP), aimed at upgrading curricula in low-performing schools to better prepare youngsters for college.
In the predominantly minority Culver City Unified School District near Los Angeles, CAPP has spurred improvement.
By introducing rich, pre-algebra math courses in the sixth and seventh grades, the district has greatly increased the numbers of students completing both algebra and geometry by the ninth grade.
The proportion of Latino and African American males completing algebra jumped from 28 percent in 1993, prior to CAPP, to 48 percent in 1997. The share of black and Latino males completing geometry went from 4 to 24 percent.
A CAPP project has changed the atmosphere at Hayward's ethnically diverse Tennyson High School, where essay writing and math problem-solving are being emphasized in a series of "mini-unit' courses.
The results: 81 percent of students in CAPP passed their minimum competency exams in reading in 1997, compared to 50 percent of those not in CAPP. In math, 64 percent of CAPP students passed, compared to 32 percent of non-CAPP students.
The average number of academic units earned by CAPP students, as well as their grade-point averages, were higher than non-CAPP students.
"We're experiencing a real renaissance here," said counselor Steve Neill.
Teaching is also being rethought.
In Augusta Mann's workshops, it's common for teachers to stand up and declare, "I've changed."
Mann is program manager for the Center for Applied Cultural Studies and Educational Achievement at S.F. State.
The center gives workshops to Bay Area teachers on the culture, history and language of African Americans, and suggests effective strategies for teaching African American kids.
"Too many teachers have a very limited knowledge of African American history, culture and language," said Mann. "They need to know the strengths that children bring to the classroom."
That's a point Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, makes in her new book, "The Dreamkeepers."
Ladson-Billings, whose book studies strategies of successful teachers of black youngsters, criticized the simplistic "foods-and-festivals" approach to individual cultures that teacher education programs offer.
The resulting cultural schism between African Americans and their teachers creates frequent "miscommunication" that hampers both teaching and learning, she said.
Ladson-Billings believes the Oakland public schools' attempt to take ebonics into consideration in the education of black children was a positive step -- although misunderstood by the public.
It also matters greatly how teachers teach, she said. Mann agrees that curriculum content isn't as important as strategy.
"The way teachers are trained is really not the way African American kids learn best," said Mann.
For example, stressing oral expression is critical. So is establishing relationships.
"You have to love the children," Mann said.
'Children are perceptive' Glorene Mira-Johnson, teacher at Martin Luther King Middle School in San Francisco, concurred.
"Children are very perceptive," said Mira-Johnson, a Latina. "They won't perform their best if they know you don't believe in them or even like them."
Mastery of subjects is also a key.
"The paradigm has to change, from a deficit model of low expectations, to one where you have the highest expectations of the kids," Mann said.
Other ideas target school administrators, especially in the suburbs where many middle-class minorities live.
Few suburban principals know much about minority education issues, said L. Scott Miller of the College Board, who heads the national Task Force on Minority High Achievement. He suggests forming a suburban consortium of educators.
Programs outside the schools Miller also believes efforts outside the schools need to dramatically increase.
Models already exist: early childhood education, summer and weekend programs for the disadvantaged, and programs such as MESA and EAOP that target promising students.
What is needed now is a more concerted effort to get minority students, including the middle class, into supplemental programs from their earliest years, he said.
"Sophisticated after-school, weekend and summer programs need to be developed for large numbers of minority students, starting in the primary grades, with the expectation that many attendees will be from the middle class, not simply from the poor or the working class," Miller told the Princeton University Conference on Higher Education recently.
Funding might be provided initially by foundations and private business, although middle-class parents would eventually pay for their children's tuition.
Those efforts, he said, would create "a very positive and demanding learning environment" by creating peer group networks, for both students and their parents.
Just as important are the perceptions and responses of minority students themselves.
UC-Berkeley anthropologist John Ogbu says minority students need help in "separating their collective identity from their academic identity."
Here, parents and other adults in these children's lives are critical in helping them "understand the world as it is" and equipping them to change it for the better, said Ladson-Billings.
"African American children cannot afford the luxury of shielding themselves with a sugar-coated vision of the world," she wrote. "When their parents or neighbors suffer personal humiliations and discrimination because of their race, parents, teachers and neighbors need to explain why. But, beyond those explanations, parents, teachers and neighbors need to help arm African American children with the knowledge, skills, and attitude needed to struggle successfully against oppression."
****************************************************************** Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: JBECKER@SIU.EDU