In suburban Howard County, Maryland, lots of students take calculus in high school. Or at least, lots of white and Asian students do. In 2011, African American and Hispanic students made up about 30 percent of the public school district's enrollment but only about 11.3 percent of calculus students, according to the U.S. Education Department.
Renee Foose, superintendent of the Howard County Public School System, recently asked Harvard's Center for Education Policy Research to investigate the disparity. The researchers tracked student test scores and course choices from senior year all the way back to elementary school.
"There's a remarkable finding here, which is that actually the achievement gap in Howard County, with regard to math, doesn't seem to grow over time," said Christopher Avery, lead author of the unpublished study. The district seems to be doing a good job enrolling strong math students in tough math courses.
But although the gap doesn't grow, it's persistent. And it emerges when children are young. "Success in the high school classes—the more advanced ones—actually has its roots in the third and fourth grade," Avery says.
Math experts disagree on whether calculus, usually a college course, should be taught in high school. In 2012, the Mathematical Association of America and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics—two professional associations that focus on teaching—took the position that the goal of a K-12 math curriculum shouldn't be to get students through calculus but to give students a strong foundation that will prepare them for a range of college majors.