While most American schools include messages of equity and the belief that all students can develop their abilities, too often these sentiments exist only on paper and fall short of schools' growth-minded goals.
Adrian Mims, a former dean at Brookline High School, noticed an alarming trend in African American students who attempted high level math courses as freshmen at the mostly affluent Boston suburban school; the attrition rate for these students was nearly 100 percent by the time AP Calculus was offered in their senior year.
What Mims began unearthing was a fixed mindset about math among the African American students who began to steadily drop out of high level math courses. In other words, the school's mission statement of equality was just that - a statement without policies or procedures in place to support academic excellence for all.
"Our eighth grade offering was Algebra and then, ninth graders were faced with a new, different kind of mathematical thinking in Geometry Honors that was almost entirely proof-based and outside their experience," Mims said. When African American students were confronted with a shift in necessary skills, they almost all became helpless and decided a higher grade in a lower level course was preferable, instead of sticking with something new and learning from their mistakes.
Mims became troubled watching a cohort of ~25 students reduced to one or none, as students matriculated through advanced placement math courses from freshman to senior year. While a doctoral student at Boston College's Lynch School of Education, Mims developed what is now The Calculus Project to initially support African American students entering Geometry Honors, but which later evolved to include all students with poor representation in all advanced high school math courses.
Tall, soft spoken, and passionate about his work, Mims' exploration of the challenges faced by African American students in high school math classes also eventually forced him to reflect on his own college experience as one of the few African American Electrical Engineering students.
"What I began to remember was that I watched my college peers work in groups to solve the difficult math problems and learn from each other," Mims recalls. "Groups of students were all working together, sharing their work and what they were learning. But most of the black kids, including myself, didn't get the cultural cue to do this."
Back at Brookline, Mims did not have to mine through mountains of data to see where the biggest challenge lay for African American students taking freshman Geometry Honors – nearly 70% of these students withdrew in the second semester. Only 10% of white students did the same. Thus, The Calculus Project was born.
This is a project that has taken Mims from Southern Florida to New York City Schools to replicate an idea that has reaped benefits for hundreds of minority students in several Massachusetts communities in addition to Brookline. In fact, Mims resigned his BHS dean position to dedicate himself full-time to his thesis turned into practice.
Mims' findings are aligned with other research in the non-cognitive field as he found a number of issues confounding African American students attempting upper level math courses, including:
- experiencing difficulty in the face of a challenge;
- lacking a sense of belonging; and
- lacking a growth mindset, the belief that their abilities can grow.
While the problem Mims was attempting to solve contained all the inherent complexity of race and class, The Calculus Project was straightforward in its approach, albeit with a lot of hard work. Mims developed an intensive, 4-week summer course for incoming freshman; he educated parents with math meetings; he secured cohorts of 6-8 African American students in Geometry Honors classes for the fall; and he recruited Brookline High math teachers to teach the summer courses to build strong teacher-student relationships.
"It was an accelerated program, and it was like the kids were taking a drink from a water hydrant," Mims says.
Although the course load was heavy, Mims and his teachers stressed two very important beliefs with the students. The first was that adopting a growth mindset would allow all students to meet the rigorous demands of advanced math. This was followed by the idea that if they worked together, as they did during their summer course, these students could succeed to the same degree as their peers during the school year.
With a strong Geometry knowledge base, a growth mindset, and trusting relationships with some math teachers, the first results rolled in: every student who went through the summer math program finished Geometry Honors, including a few that didn't attend the summer course, but who wanted to take the upper level course to be with their peers.
But Mims did not rest on his first year of success. Instead, he built upon the program to include all advanced placement math courses within the high school math curriculum. He also started making sure teacher feedback and framing included more growth mindset language.
"We wanted our students to build upon their confidence (as learners) and realize that failure was part of their success," Mims said. "Growth mindset is a key to success and letting students know they are not locked into a certain condition."
When the first cohort of The Calculus Project students moved into tenth grade in 2010-11, all of them scored proficient or advanced in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System Math test, one of the most rigorous standardized tests in the nation. In addition, the highest scorer at Brookline High that year was an African American student who went through The Calculus Project.
Recently, Mims was named Director of The Calculus Project and Leadership Academy at Boston University, where the program now resides. Mims continues to reflect on both the program's success and the challenges of scaling The Calculus Project.
"You know we have a shortage of Americans filling important careers that need a math background. Companies are recruiting from other countries, but what if those students are right here, just waiting for the support to succeed in high school math classes?"
Mims considers the scores of underrepresented and untapped minorities throughout math classes in urban and suburban settings who could fill fields in math and science his business. If only adult belief in their skills were as accessible as those in The Calculus Project.
"Listen, our collective belief in all students' abilities to learn - especially in demanding advanced placement classes - is paramount to not only each student's success, but our collective success as a country."