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. Joe Dokes says:

    The key problem with the summary is that it doesn’t say exactly what the level of bias is, it simply says, “Small in magnitude.”

    Clearly any bias is wrong, but the magnitude of the bias is extremely important. In addition as a teacher for nearly twenty years, I can tell you that the bias against boys in general and minority boys in particular is huge.


    Joe Dokes

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  2. Mike B says:

    Studies have shown that while females’ average Math test scores equal or exceed those of males, males have a much higher variance such that those who excel in math by several standard deviations are overwhelmingly male. I believe this was actually presented here on Freakonomics as a plausible explanation why the top top ranks of Math-centric professions are dominated by Males. Basically at a certain level you need freakish abilities that are provided by a certain brain structure that biologically males are fare more likely to have.

    Anyway moving back down to elementary school teachers could simply be attuned to the fact that at the basic levels of math one can succeed by working hard or having freakish natural talent. Teachers should be making the correct generalization that the girls who show ability in math are simply working harder (which they do) while boys showing ability in math have some exceptional talent (which would be spotlighted by the fact that high math variance would make the lowest math performers males as well). The implicit assumption could be that only those with high natural talents should be encouraged to pursue a career in Math, not “girl’s can’t do Math”.

    I see three takeaways here:
    1) More careers need higher levels of math so teachers should try to encourage people even if they aren’t going to win a Fields Medal.
    2) Perhaps we need some school assessments that can separate talent from hard work to teachers can better gauge ability at low technical levels.
    3) Is there a difference between success through talent and success from sheer determination? Should school try to push people into areas they are not naturally talented for just because it is in high demand?

    BTW I really dislike studies that seem to push an agenda that human neural biology exhibits no difference between the genders. Honestly I would love nothing more than to have more females that think like engineers, but they are just not out there and I am pretty sure its not due to bias teachers.

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  3. Kay says:

    In my experience, most elementary teachers (who are, for the most part, female) don’t understand math well enough to teach it well. Math is taught as mechanics and not as critical thinking. It is portrayed in classrooms and the media as scary and irrelevant, a necessary evil. I don’t see why anyone–girls or boys–would want to learn it.

    (By the way, I have taught middle school, high school, and college math, and I see the results of the perpetuation of the “math is scary” myth every day in my classroom.)

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  4. ryan says:

    single imputation was used (no further specification of which type) and after that- a small effect was observed…

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  5. FittyStim says:

    What I think would be much more interesting would be a study about the bias against boys in school. I live in what might be the only country in the world in which girls score better in standardized math tests than boys: Sweden.

    I’ve long suspected that this is the result of a determined effort by the state to enforce equality at all costs. And equality means 50-50% division between the sexes regardless of want and/or need.

    By the way, the stereotypical trend regarding employment is still loud and clear here. Engineers and physical scientists are overwhelmingly men and humanities and health care workers are almost entirely female.

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  6. Mathology says:

    This is a shocking study. My daughter and several of her female friends are 2 grades ahead in their math skills, top their classes, and have won several medals in inter-school competitions.

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  7. CS says:

    This is completely anecdotal. But it might help explain why, despite all these studies, many are sceptical about these “research findings”.

    I asked my high-school junior son how many girls were in his honors math class (in a very demanding school). He said, roughly 50%. When I explained why I was asking, he said he thinks this stuff about teacher bias is complete bunk.

    Maybe it’s mommy bias, really? Moms teaching their daughters that math is hard and scary, and that teachers are biased against them, so it’s doubly hard?

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  8. Dan says:

    The intolerable problem we must fix is reality. There really are innate cognitive differences between boys and girls. Certain areas of strength, weakness.

    ** gasp! **

    So? I am a father of three girls. So what?

    Must fix nature. Must fix nature. Must fix nature.

    A person’s value doesn’t come from who is better than math, so I am untroubled.

    I work in patents. Overwhelmingly most inventors are men. There is no discrimination I can see (since invention is often lonely, thankless and money-losing, and you can’t tell someone to invent or not invent). It is a matter of interest and ability.

    There is much handwringing and anxiety over this discrepancy, even though invention has been this way since time immemorial.

    (Argue against this if you want, but do show actual data.)

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