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.

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

24 comments
XNP
XNP

Why are we gender-stereotyping this whole thing? There are definitely women who are not math-averse, just like there are women who have excellent spatial visualization. There might be fewer of them than men, but those there are deserve to be considered. 


The whole premise of the headline is based on a very generalized "average testing" of female primary grade teachers, which does not in any way reflect a large percentage of individual teachers (of both sexes -- I daresay there are math-averse male teacher as well). 


If you want more women in math and science, get people teaching the early grades who like math and science. They don't have to be men. 

RambleOn84
RambleOn84

Serious question:

Why do we "need" more girls in math?

gapeach101
gapeach101

@RambleOn84 Because diversity in everything is a plus for everyone.  Here's a long story.

My daughter was in material science engineering at GT.  It was an extraordinarily small field at the time.  Her class was extraordinary because it was 50-50 men and women.  Women tend to be more cooperative learners.  The profs were very concerned.  This class decimated the curve. Women brought up everone's grades There was talk of new tests having to be designed.  Clearly something had gotten out.  The next year the class was primarily male, test scores returned to historical levels, order in the universe was restored.

L_D_
L_D_

@RambleOn84 Because new careers and fields are increasingly technology oriented.  For women to have equal opportunity in these fields, they need to be as strong in STEM as their male counterparts.  Currently, there is a huge disparity in the number of women in STEM and the number of women progressing in STEM to executive level positions.

Kiddada Asmara Grey
Kiddada Asmara Grey

My daughter became more comfortable with math once she was in an all girls classroom taught by a female teacher.

Kathy
Kathy

Girls can learn math and any other subject from a female teacher. But, every teacher is not highly skilled in every discipline. Training  for teachers would help not gender hiring.

Tom Green
Tom Green

The article has the information needed: only 24% of technical jobs filled by females and impoverished households (often single parent and matriarchal), but misses the mark on female related math anxiety. I have heard mothers say way too many times, "I was never any good at math." As for the classroom, I have found my female students (from third graders to eighth grade accelerated students) to be just as mathematically proficient(if not more so) than their male counterparts. Perhaps one should do a home study about female math anxiety instead?

Kelly O'Brien Munoz
Kelly O'Brien Munoz

Why would the solution not be to stress better training to better prepare all teacher?

AJC  Get Schooled
AJC Get Schooled

Yes, but we have been talking about math for 20 years so it seems a daunting task.

Kelly O'Brien Munoz
Kelly O'Brien Munoz

AJC Get Schooled I think the issue is that the way math is taught keeps changing and the state is not adequately training... they do Podcasts that no one watches, then they teach things incorrectly, blame it on not being good at math and the cycle continues. I don’t think the perception of not being good at math is a gender issue, it is an America. Issue.

Tom Green
Tom Green

Kelly O'Brien Munoz Absolutely! My district pulled our math texts after the curriculum changed for the third bandwagon/silver bullet/hail Mary change of standards that came down the pike in about five years. I went from having a text I could use 10-15% of the time to scrambling for teaching materials 100% of the time.

gapeach101
gapeach101

I'm sorry, math is not taught in grades 1-3.  Arithmetic is taught. If you can't teach arithmetic with confidence, you shouldn't be in a classroom.

No one is allowed to say: I can't read.  So why is it okay for women to say: I can't do math?

redweather
redweather

Maybe now that girls can join the Boy Scouts . . . never mind.

Mister Smithwick
Mister Smithwick

I have an engineering degree.  I almost always interfaced better with male teachers.  The very few female math/science instructors I had were not very good.  Some were clearly incompetent, were very rigid with their methods and every other way was WRONG!  I think this is a good idea because men are better math teachers, but the fact is girls have the "baby doll gene" and boys the "truck gene" and what is wrong with that?  Guys are naturally more likely to gravitate to technical subjects.  I realize such a statement can get a person fired in today's kookoo society, but true nevertheless.  That said, one of the best math profs I ever had was a middle aged woman.  She was a PhD mathematician.and fully competent.

XNP
XNP

@Mister Smithwick So you're saying that your female math/science instructors were not very good due to incompetence and rigidity, but one of your best math profs was female? Hmmm. Interesting.

Delores Gardner Thompson
Delores Gardner Thompson

I had excellent male and female math teachers while growing up. Never noticed a difference then, nor in hindsight now. The only observation I’d make about the lower elementary teachers I’ve encountered (via my son) recently is: they typically are highly trained in literacy/reading instruction. Math, not so much.

AJC  Get Schooled
AJC Get Schooled

One of the points the mathematician made to Bo; There are likely male elementary schoolteachers who are not strong in math, but she found girls didn't internalize any message from them that somehow math struggles were inherent to the female sex. Clearly, the solution is stronger math prep for elementary schoolteachers, most of whom are women. But that also then requires stronger math prep in k-12 and thus we have the challenges.

Love2Teach2
Love2Teach2

As a parent of girls, I recognized that having my children enjoy math was my job. Along with reading daily, we played math games daily. It was fun! Both girls chose male dominated degree paths (geology and chemical engineering).


It was very dismaying  when their elementary school teachers expressed dislike for math.  I don't know that male teachers in elementary school would be the answer. Not all male teachers like math either. Predisposition begins at home, but can certainly be cultivated earlier at school with more rigorous teaching regardless of the sex of the teacher.

Kate Maloney
Kate Maloney

In find it offensive that the proposed solution is "men." There are plenty of women who excel at math. Teaching is a relatively unattractive profession these days, and for those who excel at math, there are many more attractive professions.

alt2AJC
alt2AJC

But what would teachers' unions such as the National Education Association, already no friend of education reform, say about bumping first, second and third grade female teachers out of the classroom?

And aren't we supposed to mistrust test scores anyway when they reflect poorly on teachers?

Phil Lunney
Phil Lunney

I expected my daughters to excell at math, just like my sisters and I had. The expectation of parents and mentors (Womentors) can be a critical factor.

SMCATL
SMCATL

Yeah, well, my father was a chemical engineer, and my mother was an honors math major. Neither my brother nor I were strong math students. If we hadn't looked so much like them, my parents would have assumed we were changelings.