What Teachers Think About Girls’ Math Skills

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A disheartening new study by Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Melissa Humphries finds that teachers discount the math skills of white females, even when girls’ grades and test scores indicate a comparable level of skill.  Here’s the abstract:

This study explores whether gender stereotypes about math ability shape high school teachers’ assessments of the students with whom they interact daily, resulting in the presence of conditional bias. It builds on theories of intersectionality by exploring teachers’ perceptions of students in different gender and racial/ethnic subgroups and advances the literature on the salience of gender across contexts by considering variation across levels of math course-taking in the academic hierarchy. Analyses of nationally representative data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS) reveal that disparities in teachers’ perceptions of ability that favored white males over minority students of both genders are explained away by student achievement in the form of test scores and grades. However, we find evidence of a consistent bias against white females, which although relatively small in magnitude, suggests that teachers hold the belief that math is just easier for white males than it is for white females. In addition, we find some evidence of variation across course level contexts with regard to bias. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for research on the construction of gender inequality.

“If the math bias against females is present in elementary school, which past research shows it is, and continues through high school and then college, then it’s much less likely that you will find women pursuing math-related high-status occupations in science and technology,” says Riegle-Crumb. “If you perceive the message ‘You’re just not quite as good at math as the boys are’ often enough, you may start to believe it.” 

(HT: Motherlode)

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  1. Enter your name... says:

    I wonder how much of the teachers’ perception of “ability” is actually the teachers’ perception of “enthusiasm”. If the girls seem less excited about mathematics than the boys of similar skill, then perhaps the teachers confuse that reduced level of excitement with a reduced level of prior achievement or potential.

    It’s not entirely unreasonable: in practice, your potential for learning mathematics depends in part on your willingness to work hard, and your willingness to work hard depends in part on your interest in the subject. So a person with less enthusiasm for any subject is likely to achieve less than a person with equal innate abilities and prior achievements, but more enthusiasm for mastering the subject.

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    • Greg says:

      While there’s nothing logically wrong with your theory, I fear it itself is another example of our cultural bias against considering females strong in mathematics, by labeling the teacher’s perceptions as being cause by some innate gendered difference in enthusiasm. I rather believe that if there were systemic biases (unconscious, to be sure) against me in some subject area, I would probably display less enthusiasm about that subject too.

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      • cm says:

        this is a good point, and it demonstrates how troubling these findings are. Biases create feedback loops- I am not expected to perform well, so I discount my own performance, so I develop less enthusiasm and work less in the subject, so I do poorly, so I reinforce the bias, etc. Where it begins is somewhat of a chicken and the egg argument, but where it ends is clear- with a damaging disparity between the numbers of men and women participating in STEM fields.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        In addition to Greg’s point about what we encourage girls to be interested in, I think that there is another issue, one that really is supported by gender science: girls are a bit less likely to be obsessive about *anything* than boys. The kid who is totally obsessed with the subject—whether that subject is math or art or a foreign language or something else—is almost always a boy. That boy, however, is only interested in the one subject, whereas most girls (and some boys) are moderately interested in most or all of their subjects. So by being more balanced, all-around achievers, rather than focused on one thing, girls are perceived as having a middling level of enthusiasm for each individual subject.

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  2. Nicole Faby says:

    I suppose that I should be grateful that grades in math are mostly based on objective tests.

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    • alex in chicago says:

      Hardly the true in pre-college schooling.

      In my high school I missed 0 points in my 5 math classes for incorrect answers, but never ended a single class with a 100%.

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  3. robyn ann goldstein, scientist (mathematician) at-large says:

    You want to know why? Simply put, teachers don’t understand what girls know intuitively about math. So the girls don’t either. And the boys think they know better. My daughter understood the concept of limits long, long ago and still was taught math in a way that her understanding of math was lost. I was in my first year of college (planning to be a math major) til I corrected the teacher and was punished for it. I had a student who asked a question that I did not know the answer to and to this day, I am greatful for his’ asking. Bottom line, teachers need to be re-trained. Perhaps learning from a book will be enough.

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    • Steve O says:

      Math is such a difficult subject to teach in a group setting, especially toward the end of high school and beyond. The way boys and girls are taught (teach to the test, memorize and move on, etc.) minimizes the importance of intuition and creativity, which are essential to learning math.

      Teachers and administrators have to dig deeper and really understand what their students can and can’t do–and, of course, help bridge the gap–in order to give every student a chance.

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  4. rationalrevolution says:

    I’m not sure I buy this argument. It’s not that I don’t buy that teachers have biased beliefs, its that I don’t believe that such beliefs can be used to account for the massive differences in career interest between the sexes.

    First, of all, numerous studies have shown, and my own experience affirms, that school generally is more favorable toward girls than boys. Boys simply don’t like sitting in class and doing that type of learning generally. Girls typically have better attention spans, fewer behavioral problems, do more reading, spend more time on homework, etc.

    Boys, on the other hand, tend to be more distracted by “play”, want to spend more time outside, tend more often to by hyperactive or have ADD, and tend to have more behavioral /discipline problems.

    So I’d say that overall, the types of schools we generally have now are overall biased towards girls in the first place, and this has been backed up by research.

    Secondly, I don’t think that teacher belief biases amount to much, unless they are influencing how they grade work, which apparently they aren’t. I did poorly in school across the board, pretty much a C student, even though I’m in MENSA. Most of my meaningful education has taken place outside of schools.

    I’m a software developer. I began programming as a young teen, and took only one programming class in high school. I did poorly in math academically, yet went into a field that is heavily biased toward math skills, at least academically, though its really less relevant in practice.

    I don’t recall teacher opinions matter much at all to me or other kids in school. Grades mattered, but especially in math I don’t really see how the views of the teacher would matter much at all.

    Now the fact that I went into programming was heavily influenced by the fact that my dad got a computer for me and encouraged me in learning how to program. I can see a argument there are parental bias against girls getting into engineering type fields would have a big impact. Maybe if I were a girl my dad wouldn’t have encouraged me to get into programming. That makes sense.

    My point is, I went into the so called “science and technology” fields (actually my degree is in biology, so I have a science degree and a technology career), despite performing poorly in math at school and getting no praise or encouragement in math while in school (for good reason).

    I don’t recall a lot of interactions with teachers at school. You went in, listened to them explain the lesson, you did the homework and class work, reviewed the answers, and took tests. I don’t see where “teacher bias” has much of a role to play, as long at they are grading things objectively. If they were giving boys correct marks and girls incorrect marks for the same answer that would be an obvious problem, but that’s now what’s being described here.

    The point is that I don’t thing that “teacher bias” explains the difference in career choices for boys and girls. Parental bias maybe, but not teacher bias, at least in most cases in modern America. I’d say that of all the settings, the place where boys and girls get the most equal treatment is at school. It’s everywhere else that they get much different treatments.

    I still think that biology is the #1 driving factor behind the differences in career choices (not aptitudes, but rather interests), with home experience (parental bias) being second, and cultural influence being third, with schools mostly serving to counteract these other sources of biases and only mildly contributing to biases in and of themselves.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      The stuff about boys needing to get up and run around in a cold classroom has been pretty well de-bunked.

      But schools—well, grades, which aren’t quite the same thing—are biased towards girls, and it’s tightly related to the reason that so many geniuses were C students: grades are not based on what you “know and can do” about the subject matter. They are based primarily on whether you are cooperative, compliant, organized, and demonstrate a good attitude.

      There was a good article in The New York Times about this problem and a middle school that addressed it by providing two grades for each subject. One was for actual knowledge, like whether you could add numbers up and get the right answer, and the other was for “life skills”, like whether you and a piece of paper could go home after school and come back the next day. They were surprised by the results: some “bad” students (students who couldn’t keep track of their homework assignments, but knew all the material) turned out to be highly skilled in the subject areas, and some “good” students (students whose sole skill was getting their homework turned in on time) turned out to need a good deal of remedial assistance.

      And, of course, some of the parents protested: They really believed that the students’ grades should be inflated if the families could afford to donate a box of tissues to the classroom, if their parents could tell them all the correct answers for their homework, if they brought a pencil to each class, etc. Of course, if showing up on time with papers and pencils in hand were my child’s sole academic skill, I’d probably want to have their grades inflated by these trivial skills, too, but I think we can all see the limitations inherent in the system.

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    • Charlotte says:

      I disagree. I think the lack of women in STEM careers is a self-perpetuating problem. I began my college career as a Computer Engineering major, and my experiences being the only girl in the majority of my classes drove me out of the field and into Economics (still math related and male dominated, but with a much better female representation).

      It was the lack of a female cohort that drove me out. Being the only girl in a class with thirty 18-year-old boys is enough to drive all but the most dedicated to a different field. Which is why this is a self-perpetuating problem. The lack of women in the field discourages women from joining the field, etc.

      The best way to get more women into STEM fields is to have more women in STEM fields. Tautological, I know, which is why there needs to be a conscious effort on the part of educators to encourage girls towards math and science.

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  5. john says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Joe Dokes says:


      “Perform better in the hyper masculine cultural environment of the math classroom.”

      You obviously haven’t been in classroom in a long, long time. I’ve been in the classroom for two decades and I can tell you that EVERY aspect of moden teaching favors female students.


      Joe Dokes

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  6. Nia says:

    All the way from elementary to high school, I never perceive any bias coming from my teachers regarding math, probably because the 90% of them were female teachers. However, when I got into college to study economy, around 60% of my professors were males and then I really felt a difference from grades and attitude towards me and other girls. It was really frustrating, and I can’t say it was The reason I change my study field, but it definitely was a big influence in my decision.

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    • rationalrevolution says:

      I never cared what my teachers thought. This is most likely an individual thing, some people care, some don’t. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to do a study on the impact of teacher opinion is on boys and girls.

      For example, what if a teacher is just equally harsh on everyone, regardless of sex, but the girls take it more harshly and it impacts them more whereas the boys are more likely to just shrug it off and not care…

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  7. robyn ann goldstein says:

    Simply put, how can teachers really think when they don’t know.

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  8. Matto says:

    From the study:

    “Students’ math teachers were asked to offer their personal assessment
    of the ELS students that were in their classrooms, indicating whether they
    felt that the course was too easy for the student, the appropriate level, or
    too difficult.2 This categorical indicator serves as our dependent variable.
    In general, teachers felt that students were in the class that was at the
    appropriate level (82 percent), while a much smaller percentage felt that
    the class was too easy (7 percent) or too difficult (11 percent). Although
    not frequent, it is these perceived misalignments that we seek to explore.
    We acknowledge that this is a relatively crude measure of bias, a rather
    blunt instrument trying to capture something as complex and elusive as

    Alternate Headline:

    “Ideologically Invested Sociologists find Evidence that Confirms Ideology”

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    • rationalrevolution says:

      This actually points to a methodology problem with the study. Essentially what they are doing to comparing teacher evaluation of competency against actual grades.

      This would seem to make sense, except it assumes that grades are an exact measure of competency…. which they aren’t.

      In fact, I suspect that boys are more likely to under-perform than girls, i.e. that boy’s are more likely to have grades below their capacity.

      If this is true, then the so-called “bias” that this study picked up on is really just teachers accurately evaluating the under-performance of students, which is just more common among boys.

      In other words if a teacher was asked to assess whether a boy with a score average of 93% is in the appropriate level class or should be in a more difficult class, and was asked the same question of a girl with the exact same score, but said that the boy should be in a more difficult class and the girl is in the correct level class, this isn’t really evidence of bias in and of itself. It *might* be, or it could be that the teacher thinks that the girl is over achieving or that her score is representative of her abilities, whereas they think the boy is under-achieving.

      This study would record this difference of opinion of the teacher as “bias against girls”, but its not a fact that is is a bias. What she knows that the girl works hard in class, takes notes, and does all her homework, but the boy goofs off in class, doesn’t take notes, doesn’t do 100% of his homework, but aces every test and displays that he can easily do the work?

      In this case it would be appropriate for the teacher to say that the girl is in the correct level class, but the boy should be in a harder class.

      So IMO, that’s a fatal flaw of this study. It assumes grades as a complete metric that judgement can be based against. Their argument is that is a girl and a boy have the exact same grades, then teacher should give the same answer for where they think the class is appropriate, too easy, or too hard for them.

      This is simply not true, and I suspect that boys have a large tendency to under-perform in school than girls.

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    • Steve O says:

      One of the refreshing things about the study is that the researchers open with acknowledging the fact that the 2002 ELS study apparently disproved some of their “biases” about white male favoritism.

      Their study begins with a hypothesis, and they attempt to systematically describe discrepancies due to teacher bias. That is all you can ask from scientists. You can argue about their methodology (as rationalrevolution has), but you can’t use their assumed motives to end the conversation.

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