High School Math Teachers Don't Think Girls Can Do Math

200810studentai10edited by Andrius Kulikauskas. Some rights reserved.

This wasn’t possible for me when I was in high school. I was that annoying math student who would look up from doing the homework to correct the teacher’s solution on the board. The one who complained that Algebra and Precalc and Algebra II covered too much of the same territory, and if the district was going to offer an accelerated math program, they should accelerate it, not just have a bunch of us kids skip one year in junior high then plod on at the same pace as everyone else.

Yes, I was annoying. I was also very hard to underestimate when it came to math. Or maybe I was still underestimated anyway. I certainly was by college, and given these findings, it wouldn’t be at all out of the ordinary.

The researchers analyzed numbers from the National Center of Education Statistics that represented roughly 15,000 students across the country as well as teacher surveys in which math teachers were asked to assess individual students. Teachers were asked to express whether they felt their math class was too easy, too hard or appropriate for each student. By marrying the data, Riegle-Crumb and Humphries were able to determine whether the teacher’s attitude and opinion of each student was in line with the students’ actual scores.

The results were anything but assuring.

There was a clear divide between teachers’ positive assessment of their students’ abilities and their actual scores. (Read: teachers said they were doing well when really, not so much). But more upsetting was that the converse was true for white female students: Their math teachers consistently reported that they were doing more poorly in their classes than they really were.

Everyone was rated as doing better than they were except white girls. Minority students of any gender were rated as unrealistically high as were white boys.

That’s going to have two effects. First, it’s going to make math unrewarding for these girls. No matter how well they perform, they’re not going to have their full competence recognized. That’s going to lead (potentially to a healthy rebellion but more likely) to the second consequence: These girls also aren’t going to believe they’re as good as they really are at math.

If they don’t like it because the normal rewards are stripped from it and they don’t think they’re any good at it, it’s very little wonder that these girls are choosing fields of study and careers where they don’t need to use math. One more leak in the pipeline diagnosed.

High School Math Teachers Don't Think Girls Can Do Math
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22 thoughts on “High School Math Teachers Don't Think Girls Can Do Math

  1. 2

    Was this U.S. born white girls or did the same underestimation of ability extend to European (for example, Ukranian students studying in the U.S.) girls?

  2. 4

    Yaargh. I do math. You know that pop quiz where you ask if someone can name a female scientist except Marie Curie? Off the top of my head I can come up with: Jennifer Morse, Anne Schilling, Kathrin Bringmann, Carla Savage, Sami Assaf — and that’s just some of the women in my subspecialty (number theoretic combinatorics) who are on my list of “download the paper if this name pops up on my article/preprint feed.”

  3. 6

    On a slightly more positive note, I wrote a play about this very topic, which pointed out the utter wrongheadedness of thinking girls can’t do math, and the negative impacts – and it recently was selected as one of the few to be presented at a major play festival. So, at least some people are aware of the problem, and would like to see it talked about.

  4. 7

    I find this quite interesting as it might shed some light on what happened to me and math in middle school. I am a white female and attended a very small public school in one of the square western states. Though small, they started to split our class of 30 kids into two different groups, basic and slightly advanced, in 7th grade based on the previous year’s grades, fairly straight forward right? I did well across all subjects in 6th grade, and I was put in the all the slightly advanced classes, except math. I was twelve so I didn’t think much on it, I did notice that it was much easier and I didn’t have to work at all to get 100% on the tests.

    I mentioned this to my parents at one point and my mom went straight off to the school to try and find out why her straight A daughter was put in the basic math class. What they told her was they relied on the recommendations of the 6th grade math teacher along with test scores. What the math teacher said was that even though I did well on the tests I didn’t talk much or answer questions as much as the other students, which is why he recommended me for the basic class. So shy = bad at math despite test scores, or at least that’s how I have always interpreted it. This nonsense made my mom understandably angry, so at her insistence they moved me to the slightly advanced class in 8th grade. Which means I skipped an entire math book in middle school, from the basic 7th grade book to the advanced 8th grade book. I still got an A in the 8th grade class, but I missed a lot of the foundational stuff which made some of the things that came later more difficult. But the greater consequence is that I decided that I wasn’t good at math, and I continued to be a shy kid that didn’t speak up much in any class, much less math where I felt like I was always playing catch up after that.

    The other interesting part of this story is that the 6th grade math teacher was also the 7th and 8th grade English teacher. He had a very high opinion of my writing skills. He always encouraged me to submit stories to contests, and was very excited about the advanced things I was reading and the writing I submitted. He consistently told me that I wrote above my grade level and had a high school or higher level vocabulary. He was visibly angry when one of my stories didn’t do as well as he thought it should have in a contest. I ran into him again years later, when I was in college and he was disappointed that I wasn’t majoring in creative writing. He thought I was smart, just not at math.

    tl;dr Totally anecdotal, but I think I’ve felt the effect of this and it definitely impacted the career path I chose. When looking through majors in college I did turn an eye to the math requirements with the thought that I wasn’t good at math and should avoid majors that would require me to take more of it. Since being out of college I have developed more of an interest in math and science and regretted not pursuing these subjects more :/

  5. 8

    Just another example of people’s prejudices interfering with their ability to perceive facts that should be quite evident.

    I find it’s odd that it’s white girls that get underrated. Is it possibly the whole ‘women are intuitive’ and ‘men are rational’ bullshit?

    Also, I read that (not surprisingly) boys overestimate their abilities in mathematics and girls underrate theirs – can anyone source any studies on that? I’m sure a major factor is feedback from adults.

    I guess I felt pretty good about my abilities in mathematics since I mostly learned it at home from my parents’ old textbooks.

  6. 9

    My oldest daughter, a neurobiology PHD, has just interviewed for a position in science policy in DC that will be dealing with this very question. The office where she hopes to work at the National Science Foundation will have her dealing with programs to encourage more women and minorities to enter neurobiology and other “hard” math and science fields.
    BTW, she and her sisters were raised to believe that they could do anything that they desired. She happened to be “the female version” of her father. She has degrees in Engineering and Computational Neural Science from Cal Tech, a PHD in Neurobiology from Duke and is finishing up her post doc in Neurobiological Research at NYU.

  7. 10

    I’m still trying to figure out why this would be the case with only white girls, and not just girls.


    And Stephanie, did you really mean to say “it was hard to UNDERestimate me.” or did you mean to say “overestimate”?

  8. 11

    I remember in my first year of high school from the first day, our maths teacher (a man) only taught the boys. He told all the boys to gather around the front and talked exclusively to them while the girls could only listen in from around the outside of the favoured group. This was an Australian state high school.

  9. 13

    Sorry, this may be my hard science privilege showing, but I read that as off the cuff speculation, the kind one obligingly stuffs into the last paragraph of the conclusion in other fields.

    I would have liked to have seen a little suggestive data for the hypothesis that female minorities are seen as having to try harder to get into advanced math classes, by I really couldn’t find it in the tables in the original GENDSOC paper (again, it’s not kinase/phosphorylation cascades with pretty diagrams, so maybe I just can’t read statistics).

    Linked here for fast goings to real paper: http://gas.sagepub.com/content/26/2/290.full.pdf+html

    Not that they aren’t viable and valid hypotheses! I’d just wish they tried a little harder to find the cause of the racial discrepancy (or maybe I’m too dumb to really see the data).

  10. 15

    Yes, IslandBrewer, your condescension is showing. The point of the discussion sections in papers in highly complicated fields like sociology is to contextualize the results, to fit them into the entire body of knowledge. Part of that process involves highlighting unknowns as possibilities for further research.

  11. 16

    My maths teacher was not just a woman, but a Yorkshirewoman. Sort of gives the lie to the idea that women and Northerners cannot do mathematics.

    But on this side of the pond, we have a different problem: boys are underperforming in all subjects, because of a perception that being good at things is for girls.

  12. 17

    laughingmadly points out something that I was going to ask about. I think a lot of teachers’ perceptions about performance has to do with class participation as much as actual grades. I know when I was in high school, there were very few female students, and they tended to not speak up/raise their hands when the teacher was calling for an answer.

    The one girl that was in a study group with me (and one other guy, this was trig) was really very sharp, and picked up the topic just as fast as the rest of us, but also tended to be very shy and not speak up at all in class.

    So this might really have a bigger impact on the perception than the actual performance.

  13. 18

    This is so annoying. Mathematical ability is perhaps the easiest educational capability to quantify. So what do we do? Insist on adding a biased qualitative component to it.

    Holy moley people, just use the frakking scores in your assessment of student ability. Yes, “every 100% is the same” does not give the whole picture. But, its likely to be a lot less wrong than any assessment that starts off “let me tell you why I think X’s 100% is not as good as Y’s 100%.”

  14. 19

    This sort of crap really pisses me off as a father of 2 intelligent girls and as a physics/math teacher. A person who acts this way in the class room can’t call himself a math teacher, or a teacher at all. Two of the three best and smartest math teachers I have worked with in the past 25 years are female.

  15. 20

    I recently read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, in which she cites studies that showed that simply asking a student to answer the question: “Gender M/F” at the top of a math test results in poorer performance for girls. (My mother was told in high school that because she was a very accomplished musician, she could not possibly do math, so she should not even bother trying. As a result, she sadly abandoned her dreams of becoming an astronomer. As for me, I was one of the top kids in math (and physics) in highschool, but the Vice Principal still refused to let me take electronics in Grade 13, considering it to be inappropriate for a girl. In spite of this, I went on to become an electrical engineer – much to the delight of the electronics teacher.)

  16. 21

    Actually, putting a typically “male” name on any paper is, on the average, good for a grade higher than the same paper with a typically “female” name.

  17. 22

    When I was in high school I couldn’t understand why an intelligent boy was “brilliant” while his equally intelligent female classmates were “bright.”

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