We know that girls can do math, and be very good at it. But a new study published this week in PNAS shows that some girls in elementary school aren't learning just how to add one plus one—they are learning that girls should be scared of those numbers. Just like their teachers.
University of Chicago researchers assessed the math anxiety of 17 first- and second-grade teachers in a large Midwestern urban school district. (When someone has math anxiety, they can master mathematical concepts but tend to avoid the subject and perform more poorly than their abilities allow.) They also assessed the math performance levels of the teachers' students at the beginning and end of the school year as well as whether or not the students believed the stereotype that girls do better in reading and boys do better in math.
The researchers discovered that in classes with teachers that have math anxiety, math achievement at the end of the school year was worse for girls but not for boys. Girl with such teachers were also more likely to endorse the stereotype that boys are better in math and girls are better in reading. What's going on? The teachers in question were not worse at teaching math, the scientists say, but they were somehow passing on the idea to the young girls in their classrooms that math is scary. The researchers write:
We speculate that having a highly math-anxious female teacher pushes girls to conform to the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at math, which, in turn, affects girls' math achievement. If so, it follows that girls who confirm traditional gender ability beliefs at the end of the school year should have lower math achievement than girls who do not and than boys more generally. This is exactly what we found. ...
In addition, children do not blindly imitate adults of the same gender. Instead, they model behaviors they believe to be gender-typical and appropriate. Thus, it may be that first- and second-grade girls are more likely to be influenced by their teachers' anxieties than their male classmates, because most early elementary school teachers are female and the high levels of math anxiety in this teacher population confirm a societal stereotype about girls' math ability.
The problem really starts in college, where the elementary education major requires little math. This appears to be attracting math-phobes, and, not shockingly, there is a higher incidence of math anxiety among elementary education majors than individuals in any other college major. So our college education system is churning out a disturbing number of role models for little girls who find math harder and scarier than Barbie ever did. And they're teaching their charges—if unintentionally—to follow their lead.
What should be done? My impulse is to say that we should raise the math requirements for elementary education majors beyond basic algebra and geometry and weed out some of the math-phobes. And if you're thinking of becoming an elementary school teacher and are scared of math, perhaps you should find another profession.