Cultivating diversity in STEM education

The importance of developing role models of color and expanding their reach and visibility
By: | February 7, 2020
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Jessie Woolley-Wilson is CEO and president of DreamBox Learning.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson is CEO and president of DreamBox Learning.

1925 was an important year—not just for the United States, but for our nation’s education system. It was the height of the Jazz Age. F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, and the first issue of The New Yorker was released. Frank Neuhauser won the first national spelling bee with the word “gladiolus,” and the nation was rocked by the Scopes trial and debates over teaching evolution in public schools.

In the midst of all this, Elbert Cox, an African American educator and World War I veteran, quietly made history by becoming the first African American to receive a doctorate in mathematics.

Eighteen years after Cox earned his degree from Cornell University in New York, Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes became the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics. She was a lifelong educator and taught for 40 years in the Washington, D.C., public school system.

After retiring, Haynes served as a member of the district’s school board from 1960 to 1968 and as board president from 1966 to 1967 (the first black woman to ever hold the position). She helped dismantle the tracking system, which placed students in programs based on ability, and was discriminatory against poor and minority students by permanently assigning them to educational—often vocational—tracks that did not prepare them for college.

It’s vitally important for all our kids to learn more about our shared American history.

Meanwhile, Cox devoted over 40 years of his life to teaching math—most of them at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a historically black university, where he helped bolster the math department and turned it into a model for other HBCUs. Through their groundbreaking work, Cox and Haynes became role models for educators and students alike.

As the first black male and female to receive doctorates in mathematics, Cox and Haynes not only inspired future generations of black mathematicians to study STEM, but also helped restructure our education system to empower minority students to succeed. The National Association of Mathematicians even named the Cox-Talbot Address partly in recognition of Cox’s work.


Read: How can your schools recruit and retain more black teachers?


Almost a century has passed since Cox’s historic achievement, and a lot has changed in education since—but there is still much work to be done. Even today, only 7% of educators are black men and women, while only 20% of teachers are people of color. This has implications not just for our education system, which suffers from a lack of diversity in leadership, but for students of color, who have fewer role models to look up to than their white counterparts.

Research has shown that black students exposed to one black teacher by third grade are 13% more likely to enroll in college, while students of color in general show improved reading and math test scores, as well as increased graduation rates, when they have teachers of color.

Empowering educators and students of color

All the data points to the fact that strong role models empower students of color to succeed and inspire confidence in math and reading. To amplify this positive impact and better position students of color to work in STEM, here are three key strategies:

  1. We must diversify the education workforce and better support teachers of color. This starts by empowering teachers and other learning guardians with professional development resources and ongoing support to help differentiate their instruction for each student’s unique learning style, which is proven to increase student achievement.
  2. To create a more diverse STEM workforce, we need to start earlier and ensure that every student—regardless of race, gender or ZIP code—is equipped with a high-quality math education. Talent is everywhere; opportunity is not. Growing class sizes with students at various learning levels make it difficult for teachers to create a highly effective, personalized learning experience for students. Education technology has the power to help teachers personalize lessons for their students at scale, providing each student with the right lesson at exactly the right time.
  3. We must tout great black leaders like Cox and Haynes who paved the way for future black mathematicians. It’s vitally important for all our kids to learn more about our shared American history. This knowledge will serve to educate and inspire kids from all backgrounds to learn about and celebrate more hidden figures of every color. Moreover, our nation’s schools should present students with a more comprehensive view of African American history: all of it, the good and the bad, in the complex expression of American history. “My history is our history” is an idea and an ideal we can all embrace and grow from.

Read: Why aren’t our teachers as diverse as their students?


We call on other leaders in the education field to join us in the effort to diversify STEM education and lift up students of color across the United States. In the next 100 years, we want to see more black men and women earning doctorates in mathematics and other STEM fields, more students of color graduating from college and joining the STEM workforce, and more role models like Cox and Haynes working within our education system to change policies and procedures for the better.

If we take steps now to develop role models of color and expand their reach and visibility, then we can ensure that future generations of minorities will be represented at all levels of education and beyond.


Jessie Woolley-Wilson is CEO and president of DreamBox Learning.


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