Additional motivation for this work stems from a call within the mathematics education community for more studies of success within under-resourced and under-served communities. We have a glut of studies focusing on academic disparities and academic failure for low-socioeconomic status (SES) students. Many of these studies focus on race or ethnic background, however this study examines success through the lens of poverty and previous academic failure. Again, my motivation springs from my own life experience. My secondary, adult developmental education, and community college teaching experiences have included a large low SES suburban high school with a diverse student population, a mid-sized city high school with a low SES, primarily Hispanic population, two rural Appalachian high schools with low SES primarily White populations, and an urban community college campus in a low SES, primarily African-American community. I found the obstacles faced by the students in all of these environments to be remarkably similar. The common denominator for each of these schools was not race or ethnic background; not rural, suburban or urban. The common denominator was the socioeconomic status or poverty of the students. These teaching experiences coupled with an immersion into education research literature have solidified a belief that low SES is the dominant limiting factor for students, both in the study of mathematics and their educational attainment. There is an ample body of evidence within education literature in general and mathematics education specifically to support this contention.
The media, the politicians, and the so-called education reformers love to brandish studies of failure as a club in the sustained assault on our system of public K-12 education and both public and private higher education. Rochelle Gutiérrez, Sarah Lubienski and others have described the abundance of research focusing on achievement disparities among marginalized students as gap-gazing. Gutiérrez maintains that the excessive research focus on the achievement gap presents a “fixed image of academic disparities, while providing little in the way of useful information regarding the history or context.” All too often gap-gazing focuses on variables frequently out of the control of mathematics education stake-holders, intent on impacting positive change.
There is another voice that has been all too often muffled in the ongoing debate. The bulk of the research focuses on the teacher or the institution, ignoring the experiences of the students. The fact is, many previously unsuccessful, under-prepared, under-served, and under-supported students do persist and eventually succeed. They need a platform to share their story about the positive learning transformations in their own lives. Studies of the phenomenon of positive mathematical learning transformations as experienced and understood by previously unsuccessful low SES community college students may well provide essential understandings as to how we might foster change from destructive to productive mathematical and overall learning dispositions.
So if you are still reading you have endured the elevator speech. Where in the process am I? I have successfully defended my research proposal and received IRB approval from both participating institutions. I have written and rewritten the first three chapters, and will be rewriting them again. I have completed and transcribed my initial bracketing interview, and reviewed the transcript with the university phenomenology group. I have completed a pilot interview with a student that still needs to be transcribed. The problem I am facing is a lack of necessary focus and direction crucial for a researcher attempting to complete a dissertation while maintaining a full 15 hour community college faculty teaching load, the myriad of committee responsibilities and associated meetings that often suck the passion out of even the most enthusiastic. My hope is that I will find the self-discipline to visit this blog at least once a week to share my progress or lack thereof with anyone who might find this journey interesting. If recording my thoughts and reflections in this blog helps to keep distractions at bay, to clarify my thoughts, to receive some useful feedback or just to commiserate with others on a similar journey, then it will prove to be time well spent. Thanks to any fellow travelers who decide to share this journey.