Closing the Gap: Professor Studies Variables in Math Achievement

Monday, November 8, 2010

In classrooms across the United States today, there is a push to improve mathematics achievement. But how do students’ backgrounds influence potential for academic success? Education scholar and Saint Joseph’s University professor Aubrey Wang is finding clear evidence that student background relate to their exposure to mathematics and performance in mathematics, even at the preschool and kindergarten levels.

Wang’s research, which was featured in the Early Childhood Education Journal, has found that low-income African-American kindergartners have greater opportunities to learn mathematics than their low-income Caucasian peers. In a follow-up study, Wang also found that the opportunity to learn in preschool significantly predicted math achievement for African American students, where Caucasian student achievement was more often correlated with exposure to mixed methods of problem solving, fractions and estimation.

Her conclusions were drawn from analyzing a data set from the National Center for Education Statistics, which required Wang to obtain a special limited license from the federal government. With this license, Wang has access to two nationally gathered data sets that comprise the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Currently, there are approximately only 350 individuals with access to this data.

Her research has found that opportunity to learn is influenced by four major factors: the content of the curriculum, how the curriculum is delivered, any obstruction of delivery (classroom distractions), and students’ individual and diverse learning needs.

She believes “educational research should address critical and practical problems,” and plans to continue this research, focusing on African-American, Hispanic-American and Caucasian-American children from low-income families who attend either a center-based preschool or a Head Start program – a government sponsored school readiness initiative. Wang, who spent ten years in the educational research field before entering higher education, hopes to build upon the evidence that early mathematics exposure contributes to later academic achievement, and provide valuable information that will help close the achievement gap related to student background.

“My experience in the educational research field was that practitioners [teachers] do not always know how to apply the research provided for them, so often strategies were not implemented. If educators learn research skills and understand how educational research can translate into classroom success, that’s where the difference will come,” she says.

Wang recently won a secondary data analysis grant totaling $34,076 from the American Educational Research Association Grants Program for a two-year project titled “Factors Predicting Early Mathematics Skills for Low-Income African-American, Hispanic-American, and Caucasian-American Preschool and Kindergarten Children.” The award spans from 2011 to 2013.


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