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Racial Achievement Dynamics: James Huguley

Jay HuguleyAfter looking at over 16,000 high school students in 700 schools, doctoral candidate James Huguley, Ed.M.’04, discovered that, for black students, math skills are more important to their long-term educational success than they are to that of white students.

His dissertation, “The Effects of School Context and Course Placement on Racial Achievement Dynamics in High School: Modeling Key Elements of Social and Structural Theory,” explores how school setting, socio-economic status, and academic engagement relate to the achievement of students of different races. “My research speaks to the fact that differences in school and social contexts contribute to differences in the high school experience, and ultimately achievement, for students of various racial backgrounds in the U.S.,” he says.

“My findings suggest that across schools, students of different races with similar family educational, professional, and economic backgrounds in the 10th grade end up with different trajectories in mathematics achievement and how far they go in school,” Huguley says.  More specifically, he notes that even with comparable social class backgrounds, white students tend to be enrolled in higher high school math courses, have better mathematics skills in high school, and also have better college enrollment rates. Research has shown that white and black students of low-income status tend to have more similarities in educational outcomes than those from middle class backgrounds.

“Generally, differences in mathematics achievement outcomes are wider among middle class black and white students than they are among poor students,” Huguley says. “Meanwhile, my results also show that actual math skills are more acutely related to black high school students’ future postsecondary prospects. This means that while math achievement may be more potent in relating to the academic futures of black students compared to white youth, black students, especially in the middle class, are not getting the preparation to take advantage of it.”

While Huguley is still examining his findings, he believes that these differences may have to do with racial dynamics in the academic climates of schools, particularly since these gaps seem to be more pronounced in urban school contexts than in the suburbs.

It was his own experience as a student and teacher, and working at a nonprofit that led him to wonder about these issues. “As a student I didn’t see efforts at creating a school culture or efforts at creating a unified vision for achievement for students and teachers,” Huguley says. “Educators were showing up and doing their jobs but it wasn’t the type of thing where people felt like they were part of something. But I saw that at the school where I taught and program where I worked. So, it became very important to me.”

Huguley taught at an affluent middle school in Providence, R.I., while at the same time, he was co-director of Breakthrough Providence, a nonprofit that works with students from low-income backgrounds. His questions about the vast disparities between the opportunities available in public urban settings and those of private affluent settings began to increase. In some instances, it was simply that the schools had more resources and could afford more opportunities for students, but some of the disparities could not be explained in that way and instead seemed to be about culture, relationship, and context.

He enrolled in the Ed School, focusing on how certain risk factors impact the educational achievement of black, Latino, and low-income youth. While he thought this would lead to a doctorate and eventually a leadership position in a school, he only became more fascinated with education research on the very topic that brought him to HGSE.

Huguley hopes to continue his research on the relationships between social class, school climate, and achievement for different racial groups.  “Students come with different needs, and that leads to different school programs that are optimal for them. I hope to use my research to understand how students from different backgrounds are experiencing similar school contexts and understand what is effective when looking at socio-economic background,” he says. “There are widening gaps between rich and poor and we must make sure we cultivate students from all backgrounds to be effective in the classroom. My research sheds some light on how schools can be more or less effective in achieving race and class equity.”


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