“Successful African-American mathematics students” Essay

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“Successful African-American Mathematics Students in Academically Unacceptable High Schools” is author Peter A. Sheppard IV’s dissertation for his Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Science and Mathematics Education. And although there have been numerous studies already conducted on successful African-Americans, as revealed by Sheppard’s Review of Literature, not much has been made regarding the accountability aspect of the No Child Left behind Act (NCLB) 2001 (where states are required to publicly identify low-performing schools) and its influence on students.

Hence, Sheppard sought to explore the relation between academically unacceptable schools – which, as defined by the NCLB 2001, refer to schools that got a School Performance Score of 44. 9 or below – and the existence of quite a number of African-American math students in such seemingly negatively labeled academic institutions. Completed on May 2005, Sheppard’s article posed two primary and four secondary research questions. The main questions that the study aimed to address are:

1) Why are successful African-American mathematics students (with “successful student” defined as someone who scored ‘Advanced’ or ‘Mastery’ on the math portion of Louisiana’s Graduate Exit Exam or GEE) able to thrive in academically unacceptable schools? 2) Why have these successful African-American math students chosen to stay in academically unacceptable schools despite being given an option to transfer to a better-performing school? In an attempt to answer the above questions, Sheppard (2005) also hopes to stumble upon answers to the following sub-questions:

1) Is the negative school designation, academically unacceptable, an appropriate description of the schools in this study? 2) What is the role of the teacher in the achievement of successful math students in state-recognized poor schools? 3) What is the role of the school-based leader (principal) in the achievement of successful math students in state-recognized poor schools? 4) To what extent do peers affect the achievement of successful math students in state-recognized poor schools?

Sheppard made it clear that his paper was in no way an attempt to generalize the situation of all African-American students in all academically unacceptable schools. In fact, the answers he’ll be deriving at will be applicable only to “a small non-probability, purposeful sample” that is limited to the eleven successful African-American math students who studied in either Lake High School or River High School and who participated in the study (Sheppard, 2005). It is for this reason that Sheppard approached his study with a qualitative design.

Since Sheppard was attacking his research qualitatively, the theoretical construct used is not that well-defined. The use of a theory in a qualitative study is, after all, not as clear as its use in quantitative researches. John Creswell (1994) explains, “In a qualitative study, one does not begin with a theory to test or verify. Instead, consistent with the inductive model of thinking, a theory may emerge during the data collection and analysis phase of the research….

” But even with an undefined theoretical construct, it may be safe to assume that Sheppard was proceeding with the research under the same theoretical constructs that other researchers mentioned in the Review of Literature were using: that despite an “ominous set of troubling conditions” provided by family life, peers, society, and – as applicable with the study at hand – a negative label on the schools they attend, African-Americans are able to overcome the challenges and become academically successful thanks to “support from teachers, parental academic engagement, self-discipline, self efficacy, and positive peer influence” (Sheppard, 2005).

To arrive at a conclusion, Sheppard attempted to answer his research questions via what he called data triangulation, where he “[brings] more than one source of data to bear a single point”. And his sources of data were tape-recorded interviews with the 11 successful African-American students and principals and math teachers from the two participant schools plus a 10-item open-ended survey that the 11 students had to complete.

Conducting tape-recorded interviews indeed worked to Sheppard’s advantage as it allowed him to keep the original data and “preserve the words of the respondents” (Sheppard, 2005). Conducting one hour semi-structured interviews with each of the principals and teachers allowed Sheppard to make use of one of the advantages of the said data collection type, which is that it gave him control over the line of questioning (Creswell, 1994). Same thing goes with his interviews with the students.

However, the interview with the students posed one limitation: since they were conducted in a group setting, the presence of other interviewees may have biased the responses.

In fact, it should be noted that 5 of the 11 students interviewed were either reserved or brief in responding. Sheppard did use another data collection type to verify the students’ answers during the group interviews. But for a study that is openly outlined as qualitative in nature – Sheppard himself wrote so a couple of times throughout the paper – it was surprising that the second method used was the open-ended survey. It is a common fact that survey – open- or close-ended – is a method associated with the qualitative procedure (Burns and Bush, 2005; Creswell, 1994; Qualitative research).

I believe that it would have been wiser for Sheppard to have stuck with the methods he applied during his pilot study, which were group and individual interviews.

This is not only to make sure that he stays parallel with a qualitative design but also because a face-to-face interview achieves something that a written survey can never hope to do so – and that is allowing the researcher room to ask for additional information (Burns and Bush, 2005). Surveys, even those with open-ended questions, allows for respondents to provide incomplete answers that a researcher will have a hard time clarifying; with face-to-face interviews, though, it will be easy for the interviewer to throw in a follow-up question and let the respondent elaborate on his/her answers (Burns and Bush, 2005; Creswell, 1994).

Besides, the methods in the pilot study has already proven successful as two of the participants who were reluctant during the group interviews answered more openly during the individual session, thus making the group-individual interviews seem like a smarter path to tread.

It is also worth noting that the use of open-ended and semi-structured questionnaires was indeed a good move on Sheppard’s part because it allowed him to collect information in the participants’ own words and these kinds of questionnaires elicit complete answers (it is just up to Sheppard to probe further).

And although the information collection with these types of questionnaires are difficult to code and interpret (Burns and Bush, 2005), Sheppard was able to go about it with member checking, where he asked the participants to review and edit the transcripts. Sheppard’s methodology was, arguably, effective in arriving at a satisfactory conclusion. But in my honest opinion, there would have been a better way of approaching the research to ensure that the result he’d arrive at will be more ‘trustworthy’.

But his study, “Successful African-American Mathematics Students in Academically Unacceptable High Schools”, although not applying a methodology I would personally have preferred is indeed a good starting to point to further exploring relationships between successful African-American math students and academically unacceptable high schools.

REFERENCES Boeree, C. George. (1998). Being Aware Of Your Biases. Qualitative Methods Workbook. Retrieved August 23, 2007, from http://webspace. ship. edu/cgboer/qualmethfour. html. Burns, Alvin and Ronald Bush. (2005). Marketing Research (5th ed). Europe: Pearson Education. Creswell, John W. (1994). Research Design: Qualitative & Quantitative Approaches. California: Sage Publications. Northern Arizona University. (1999). Interviewing in Qualitative Research. Qualitative Research.

Retrieved August 23, 2007, from http://jan. ucc. nau. edu/~mid/edr725/class/interviewing/. Qualitative research. (2007, August 19). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 23, 2007, from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Qualitative_research. Quantitative research. (2007, July 25). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 23, 2007, from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Quantitative_research. Sheppard, Peter IV. (2005 May).

Successful African-American Mathematics Students in Academically Unacceptable High Schools [Electronic version]. ERIC. Retrieved August 23, 2007, from http://www. eric. ed. gov/ERICWebPortal/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet? accno=ED489992.

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