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To get more girls in math, should we get more men in the classroom?

My husband attended his Harvard University reunion this weekend where he was one of the few grads who wasn’t a hedge fund manager or titan of industry. (He's a journalist, too.) He told me about a fascinating discussion with a fellow alum who is a mathematician and computer scientist with a radical notion about how to interest more girls in math.

The woman's idea: Turn first, second and third grade classrooms over to male teachers.

Considering that 9 out of 10 elementary schoolteacher are women, that would be a challenge. Now working  at an elite university, my husband's former classmate explained that many women who opt to teach in the early grades are skittish about math. The little girls in their classes pick up on those apprehensions and internalize a belief that math is not something girls like or want to do.

So, it is not surprising that U.S. Census data show that while women constitute 48 percent of the American workforce, they make up just 24 percent of workers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Clear evidence exists that the United States has a gender gap in math performance. As the Atlantic reported:

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s assessment, given every three years to 15-year-olds across the world, showed that in 2009 the gender gap in math favors boys overall, but that it also varies from country to country, with some, like Albania, favoring girls by more than 10 points. Sweden’s gap also favored girls, but so slightly that it may not be statistically significant. The U.S., however, regularly shows girls doing worse than boys, and in 2009 showed a 20-point gap.

The National Science Foundation funded a 2010 University of Chicago study that examined teacher attitudes toward math and found female elementary school teachers pass on their anxiety and stereotypes about math to the girls in their classes.  According to the official release on the study:

"Having a highly math-anxious female teacher may push girls to confirm the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at math, which in turn, affects girls' math achievement," said Sian Beilock, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago. She is lead author of a paper, "Female Teachers' Math Anxiety Affects Girls' Math Achievement."  Beilock is an expert on anxiety and stress as they relate to learning and performance.

More than 90 percent of elementary school teachers in the country are women, and often they get their teaching certificates with little mathematics preparation. Other research shows that elementary education majors have the highest rate of mathematics anxiety of any college major. The potential of these teachers to impact girls' performance has important consequences.

At the beginning of the school year, student math achievement was unrelated to teacher math anxiety in both boys and girls. By the end of the school year, however, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls, but not boys, were to endorse the view that "boys are good at math and girls are good at reading." Girls who accepted this stereotype did significantly worse on math achievement measures at the end of the school year than girls who did not accept the stereotype, and than boys overall.

The study posed a less radical solution than replacing math-leery female teachers with men; it advised requiring more math prep in elementary teacher training and addressing issues of math attitudes and anxiety.

A 2013 study led by Heather Antecol, an economics professor at Claremont McKenna, found female teachers have a negative impact on the math test scores of female students in primary school in disadvantaged neighborhoods.  The study looked at mathematics achievement of more than 1,600 1st through 5th grade students high-poverty, high-minority schools. Of the teachers in the study, a little more than one in 10 of held an undergraduate degree in math or related science, and about a third were men.

An Education Week story about the study reported:

Ms. Antecol and her colleagues found that girls taught by a female teacher, as opposed to a male teacher, saw their math test scores drop by 4.7 percenage points by the end of the school year. Moreover, those girls performed on average 1.9 percentage points lower than their male classmates, about 10 percent of a standard deviation. The researchers characterized both effects as strong. By contrast, boys saw no drop in math performance under the same teachers.

The findings prompt the question: Does this mean men are naturally better math teachers than women? Not at all, according to the researchers. When they broke out students' performance based on their teachers' college math background, the gender gap disappeared. Girls taught by women with a strong math background actually got a boost compared with their male classmates. Also worth noting, the researchers found no evidence of differences in teaching styles between the women and men teachers

I suspect math training -- now a greater focus in elementary school teacher prep -- may eventually change this dynamic. But there is a long way to go.

In 2004, the state Board of Education decided Georgia ought to introduce algebraic concepts in middle school. When Georgia middle school teachers were surveyed about the proposed new standards, half of the respondents said they lacked the needed skills to teach algebra. Nor did they think students arrived at middle school from elementary schools in Georgia anywhere near ready.





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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.