Teacher anxieties may subtract from girls’ math scores

In some classes, a female teacher’s worry over math can do a number on girls’ early achievement

Here’s a disturbing equation: Anxiety about doing math, plus female elementary school teachers, equals a drag on math achievement for some first- and second-grade girls.

Female teachers’ discomfort with math encourages girls in these early grades to embrace the stereotype that girls don’t deal with numbers as well as boys, contends a team led by psychologist Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago. By the end of the school year in each grade, girls who pick up on that negative typecasting score lower on a math achievement test, on average, than girls who don’t, the researchers report online January 25 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Encouragingly, a majority of girls in the new study regarded themselves as boys’ equals in math ability and scored as well as boys on an end-of-year achievement test. Boys’ scores did not vary depending on whether they believed that boys grasp math better than girls.

But in classes with female teachers who demonstrated anxiety about math, girls became more likely to endorse math stereotypes as the school year progressed and displayed a small but statistically significant lag in math achievement relative to their peers.On average, the girls who endorsed the stereotype scored in the 50th percentile on the end-of-year test. Those who didn’t scored in the 70th percentile.

“This is a concern, because if these girls keep getting math-anxious female teachers in later grades, it may create a snowball effect on their math achievement,” says University of Chicago psychologist and study coauthor Susan Levine.

Women make up more than 90 percent of U.S. elementary school teachers, Levine notes, and research has shown that girls are more likely to model their behavior after adult females rather than males. Earlier surveys have also reported that, among college students, students pursuing majors in elementary education describe the highest levels of anxiety and worry at the prospect of doing math.

“This is an interesting study, but the results need to be interpreted as preliminary and in need of replication with a larger sample,” comments psychologist David Geary of the University of Missouri in Columbia. Geary studies how math knowledge develops during childhood.

Beilock’s team recruited 17 female first- and second-grade teachers in five Midwest public elementary schools. Participants also included 65 girls and 52 boys from these teachers’ classes.

Researchers assessed teachers’ math anxiety and math knowledge during the last two months of the school year. Math-anxiety scores reflected teachers’ emotional reactions to situations such as “reading a cash register receipt after you buy something.”

After taking a standardized math achievement test near the beginning and again at the end of the school year, students completed a test of their beliefs about gender abilities. Children read two stories, one about a student who excels at math and the other about a student who reads well. After each story, children drew a picture of the student and said whether their drawing showed a boy or a girl.

Teachers’ math anxiety showed no relation either to girls’ and boys’ beliefs about gender abilities or to their math achievement at first. At the end of the school year, highly math-anxious teachers’ classes contained most of the 20 girls who portrayed boys as math whizzes and whose math scores lagged behind.

Girls whose math scores matched those of boys in classes with math-anxious teachers may have already developed positive views about math from parents or other family members, Levine speculates.

Regular assistance from math coaches might diminish math anxiety among elementary school teachers, she suggests.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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