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Female Teachers Add to Students' Math Anxiety

Highly math-anxious female teachers may lead girls to conform to the stereotype that, when it comes to math, they just can't compete with the boys.

In spite of the multitude of research indicating otherwise, the assumption that boys are biologically better at math than girls is alive and well at schools across the nation. And a new study indicates that when female teachers believe the stereotype, they pass their own mathematical anxiety on to the girls in their classes.

While the perpetuation of the idea is troubling, the implications are more so: The girls who believe their gender possesses inferior math skills do significantly worse in the subject than the girls who don't.

Researchers at the University of Chicago conducted a yearlong study of 17 first- and second-grade teachers and their classes. They found that a female teacher's math anxiety did not affect boys' performance — but it did affect girls' math achievement.

Their results, published in the Jan. 11 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that a highly math-anxious female teacher may lead girls to conform to the stereotype that, when it comes to math, they just can't compete with the boys.

The findings are particularly worrisome since women make up more than 90 percent of elementary school teachers in the United States. Teaching certificates require very little mathematical knowledge or preparation, and research has shown that students majoring in elementary education have higher rates of math anxiety and lower proficiency rates in it than other college majors.

To determine the effects of a teacher's math anxiety on her students, researchers tested individual students' mathematical achievement and gender stereotypes at both the beginning and the end of the school year. They also assessed each teacher's level of anxiety.

After hearing gender-neutral stories about students who were good at math and good at reading, students were asked to draw a picture of a child who was good at each subject. The researchers used the drawings (Did Susie draw a boy or a girl as the good-at-math student?) to assess gender stereotypes.

When school started in the fall, student math achievement wasn't related to their teachers' feelings about math. But by the end of the school year, the more anxious a teacher was about the subject, the more likely girls — but not boys — in her class had adopted the view that "boys are good at math and girls are good at reading."

The girls who believed the stereotype scored six points lower in math achievement than either the boys or the girls who hadn't developed an opinion on it. This suggests that the lack of women in math- and science-intensive fields like engineering needs to be addressed much earlier in the game than initiatives providing college scholarships for women going into engineering or chemistry.

The authors of the study echo the sentiments of Leon Botstein, suggesting that elementary school teacher preparation programs require more math in their curricula and address teacher uncertainties about the subject.

However, they leave untouched (perhaps wisely) the "multiculturalism-to-math ratio" debate.

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