Dissertation Spotlight graphic
Dissertation Spotlight

Dissertation Spotlight: How Teacher-Student Relationships Impact Black Males’ Math Achievement

By The Room 241 Team January 28, 2019

Teacher-student relationships can positively or negatively affect a student’s behavior and academic performance. When looking at a specific student group in a particular subject, the extent to which that relationship can impact students’ achievement can provide powerful information. Makeba Butler, EdD, wanted to explore this further in terms of math achievement among black males, thinking that there may be a correlation between achievement and teacher-student relationships.

There’s a lot of research out about black males and the fact that they score far beneath their peers in terms of academics on any level. My question has always been not why, but what do we do to fix it? We can’t keep pointing the finger at the problem,” explains Butler. She earned her EdD in Transformational Leadership from Concordia University-Portland and is an education entrepreneur, a motivational speaker, and the associate director of Veterans Programs at the Women’s Business Development Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Since earning her EdD, Butler has led parent education and teacher development workshops across the country. She has also started an educational consulting company, partnering with schools to “professionally develop teachers on relationship-building strategies with diverse populations.” Butler says her desire is to “provide a blueprint that allows teachers on every level to feel confident and empowered when it comes to teaching black male students.” Let’s examine the key findings from Butler’s dissertation,Teacher-Student Relationships and How They Encourage Mathematics Achievement Among Black Males.

The problem and the potential

Butler’s premise is that positive interactions between black male elementary school students and their teachers have a corresponding positive impact on the student’s math scores. In her study, she wanted to define what qualities are present in those positive interactions and how those relationships can be encouraged to promote better math scores among black youth.

“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like,” says veteran educator Rita Pierson in her TED Talk. The converse also holds true, according to a study done by Camille Gibson, which Butler highlights in her dissertation. Gibson found that the more poorly a student performed, the lower regard that student held for the teacher. Butler writes that teachers who establish a strong connection with students can “potentially change the trajectory of a child’s academic experience.”

Butler’s literature review found that black males are among the poorest performing students in mathematics and that white and Hispanic students consistently outperform black students in this subject. The National Assessment for Educational Progress standardized test results suggest that “only 12% of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in mathematics, compared to 44% of white boys.” Clearly, there is a great deal of work to be done to address this issue.

Examining teacher-student relationships

Butler combined a literature review with teacher surveys and interviews as well as interviews with African-American elementary students in the teachers’ classes.

She sought to answer three questions:

  1. How do teachers facilitate positive relationships with their black male elementary students?
  2. How do the perceptions that teachers have regarding these relationships encourage black male student achievement in mathematics and how does the relationship itself encourage black male student achievement?
  3. How do black male students describe their relationship with their teachers?

To obtain her results, Butler used both a Likert survey and semi-structured interviews with open-ended questions. Participants included nine elementary school teachers and 20 students.

The study took place in a North Florida elementary school where:

  • The student population is 52% male.
  • 71% of students are African-American.
  • 85% of students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

A diverse mix of teachers was included in the study and the teachers’ experience ranged from 2.5 to 29.5 years. Butler conducted the surveys and interviews herself.

Results and conclusions

In her conclusion, Butler states that “there was a noticeable and verifiable similarity in how teachers and students viewed the teacher-student relationship.”

  • 41% of the teacher participants scored as detractors (those who hindered learning).
  • 12.5% scored as passive.
  • 46.5% scored as promoters.

Butler explains that “Communication, high expectations, and physical touch were the three themes that emerged as most prevalent when teachers and students discussed building positive relationships.” Additionally, when it came to methods teachers could use to encourage math achievement among black male students, positive communication, high expectations, and praise were themes that emerged from the study. “Student participants agreed that the times they felt most loved and cared about by their teachers were when they felt the need to try harder and put more effort into their daily scholastic achievements.”

When examining issues that may hinder academic achievement, Butler notes that “Black male students often display emotional behavior problems (that) contribute to unsuccessful academic achievement” and many of the participants in the study “had experienced a series of emotional and physical inconsistencies within the home environment.” It’s also important to note that teachers in the study “believed that the inept ability of black male students to perform well, academically in mathematics and other subjects, stemmed from a much deeper contributing factor; they did not believe it exclusively came from the inability to learn, or even from laziness.”

When speaking about her research, Butler says, “The data that I pulled from my research was unanimous. If you want to be able to impact the academic behavior of black males, you have to learn how to relate to them on their level.”


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