The Mathematics and Science Education of African Americans, 1854 – 1954
Nicole Russell

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Denver

Primary Discipline

Mathematics Education
Mainstream mathematics education research and policy is dominated by social science orientations that primarily rely on traditional theories, models, and interpretations of the mathematical competence of African Americans. Contemporary scholarship and national discourse surrounding the mathematics education of Blacks often center on the notion of pathology, a view largely supported by deficit perspectives. More pointedly, that national discourse suggests that to be African American is to be mathematically and scientifically illiterate, incompetent, and unmotivated.The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been reporting disaggregated mathematics achievement data since 1969 and most policymakers, school districts, and researchers use these data to make claims about student progress across the nation. Some researchers point to factors such as inequitable distribution of quality teachers. Others position Black parents negatively, blaming them for placing low value on early education. Still other scholars contend the U.S. does not have an achievement gap at all, but an educational debt. The rise in national focus on the achievement of Blacks using state and national summative assessments can be marked by important legal decisions beginning with Brown vs. Board of Education; but also the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. What did the mathematics education of Blacks look like before these legal decisions?Several important historians of education have presented to the field counter-narratives about segregated schools (but with a focus on general education). This project builds upon previous scholars’ work by examining specifically the mathematics education of Blacks over the period of legal segregation. Using archival materials (over 20 different data sources such as catalogs, department correspondence, faculty papers, student records, photo collections, textbooks, course syllabi, alumni records, yearbooks, student handbooks) from 25 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, across 11 states, this study reconstructs, recovers, and examines a history of mathematics and science education of Blacks during segregation; a study that has never been conducted. Finally, because access to education has never been a defacto legal or social right, Critical Race Theory is utilized to frame, analyze, and interpret the significance of the mathematics and science education of Blacks, 1854 – 1954.
About Nicole Russell
Nicole M. Russell is an assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of Denver. Dr. Russell holds a doctorate degree in curriculum and instruction with concentrations in multicultural and mathematics education from the University of Washington, where James A. Banks served as her dissertation chair. Her research interests include equity, access, and social justice in mathematics education as it specifically relates to African Americans. She is also interested in the role of race, class, and gender in the teaching and learning process of mathematics. Dr. Russell’s work is founded in the tenet of education as liberation. She utilizes critical theoretical frameworks to understand the historical, social, cultural, and political nature of mathematics teaching and learning in the U.S. and its role in perpetuating dominant ideologies in mathematics education.

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