Study Background: In 2012-13 The Washington Student Oral Histories Project (WSOHP) gathered oral histories from over 50 Western Washington students who had previously dropped out of school. These in-depth interviews focused on the youth’s educational experiences and attitudes towards school, starting from early primary to the present. Initial findings from these interviews are presented in a series of reports available on the projects’ web site (www.wsohp.org), which capture youth perspectives on the dropping out process. In the project’s current phase, we have re-analyzed the full interview data set of 53 youth narratives and will be releasing additional findings in early 2014, focusing more narrowly on role that math and reading issues played in the process of disengagement.
This summary presents highlights from our most recent analysis of participants’ perspectives on math teaching and learning issues. Findings presented represent these youths’ perceptions of their school experiences and are not generalizable to the larger population of dropouts. While math difficulties were seldom the single reason youth became disengaged from school, math-oriented fear, hatred, and failure were prominent elements of the narratives we collected. Systematic content analysis revealed the following major math-related themes:
- Math learning issues were widespread: Among youth interviewed, 68 percent reported having serious math difficulties at some point prior to leaving school. By comparison, about half of the group reported serious learning issues related to reading and/or writing.
- With regard to math learning issues, the gender gap between males and females was enormous: Astonishingly, 90 percent of the girls reported serious problems in math. By comparison, only 55 percent of boys discussed serious math learning issues.
- Early math mindsets present a somewhat contradictory picture: The sentiments “I've never liked math” or “I've never been good in math” were pervasive among youth participants. However, in reflecting upon their learning challenges in elementary school, few actually recalled specific problems with math. At this stage, they were more likely to recall learning issues related to reading, writing or spelling.
- Elementary school learning contexts were overwhelmingly perceived as positive: Most youth said they had little memory of what they actually learned or tried to learn across their elementary years in math and other subjects. However, they were able to reflect on their elementary school learning contexts in general. Most perceived their early learning environments quite favorably: they enjoyed school, liked their teachers, and liked learning. Youth who struggled in math or reading during elementary grades mostly felt supported by their teachers and the general learning environment. But by late middle school, many of these same youth no longer enjoyed learning or felt supported when they faced learning challenges.
- Middle school math experiences solidified negative mindsets: Youth who acknowledged having problems in math reported the full emergence of math-related learning issues in middle school. Youth frequently portrayed themselves as unprepared for the academic demands placed on them when they transitioned into middle, or in some case, early high school. Among academic subjects, math distressed youth the most—math issues came up more frequently than all other secondary school subjects combined. Even students who felt they had previously done well in and had enjoyed math now found themselves floundering, falling behind, and failing. These experiences influenced youth to solidify a fixed mindset and low self-efficacy regarding their math abilities: After struggling and failing to understand or do well, many came to believe that they didn't have the “brains” for math and that further efforts toward learning math were useless.
- Algebra was particularly problematic: Youth repeatedly talked about being unprepared for and perplexed by algebra, often seeing it as something strange and unrelated to what they had previously been learning. Algebra appeared to be a major tripwire that led to course failure and undermined students’ confidence in their math abilities.
- Lack of positive connections with teachers contributed to math difficulties: In middle school, youth experienced a general decline in positive connections to teachers and a concomitant decline in their sense of support for learning. The lack of personal connection to the teacher appeared to be particularly problematic for youth struggling in math. If they felt the math teacher did not support them in their struggles, they were less likely to ask the teacher for help when they didn't understand a concept. The failure to seek help, often combined with other non-productive behaviors such as not completing assignments, resulted in the youth falling further and further behind.
- Instructional practices contributed further to a downward spiral in math: Some of the practices that youth described as counter-productive included:
- Relying too heavily on lecture-style instruction and then requiring students work independently: Many youth said they needed teachers to explain differently or provide more support when they didn't understand the direct instruction lesson.
- Math course content disconnected from students’ lives: Youth didn't understand why they were being asked to learn something or why it might be important later. This criticism was largely aimed at algebra.
- One-size fits all sequence and pace of instruction: Once students fell behind they had difficulty catching up and eventually lost interest in trying.
- Lack of differentiated instruction and individual supports for struggling students: This was one of the more prominent themes related to instructional practices: students didn't get the help they needed to understand math assignments, be able to do the work and progress.
- Assigning homework and expecting struggling students to work independently on the homework. Those who could not complete class assignments became even more frustrated with homework that they didn't understand. Rather than helping youth learn the material, homework seemed to help solidify a fixed, negative mindset.
- Math struggles were directly connected with starting to skip school: Math struggles and anxieties frequently cropped up in discussions of early skipping. The linkage between troubles with math and the inception of truant behavior was quite direct in a number of the narratives. Youth described how their struggles in math led to an avoidance strategy of skipping.
The full study from which these highlights are drawn will be released in early 2014 at www.wsohp.org.