Study: Teachers think white girls can’t do math

High school teachers think white girls can’t do math, concludes a University of Texas study.  “Even with the same grades and the same test scores, the teachers are still ranking the girls as less good at math than the boys,” says Catherine Riegle-Crumb, co-author of the bias study. By contrast, teachers’ perceptions of minority students’ math abilities matched their achievement.


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  1. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem because girls tend to be less confident in their math abilities. Are the teachers reacting to the girls, or are the girls reacting to the teachers? Or is it a little of both?

  2. Charles R. Williams says:

    Does ability correlated directly with test scores and grades? It is not at all clear that they would in comparing a group of males and a group of females. Certainly girls get better grades than boys in part because they are more compliant. They may also be motivated for one reason or another to prepare better for the tests or to try harder on the tests. Finally, what passes for math tests can just as often be tests of language skills. In short, ability is not the same as performance, or grades, or test scores.

    In my experience, girls are better students than boys but boys have more innate ability in math. A boy will often blow off any course requirement that seems irrelevant to him and master necessary skills quickly when the need arises.

  3. Catherine says:

    From the abstract: “However, we find evidence of a consistent bias against white females, which although relatively small in magnitude, suggests that teachers hold the belief that math is just easier for white males than it is for white females. In addition, we find some evidence of variation across course level contexts with regard to bias.”
    Easier? That doesn’t mean that the teachers don’t think the girls can’t do math, just that it comes more easily to the boys, right? Does anyone know the exact wording of the question the teachers were presented with in this study? Because if girls are better students and work harder than boys, it’s quite logical for them to be assessed as not finding math as easy as the boys even when they score similarly.

  4. It is my understanding that the math achievement curves for boys and girls are different, with a wider curve for boys. Even if the means are the same, there are more boys at both extremes while the girls have a narrower range.

    In terms of classroom performance, my experience is that girls are more likely to do all the homework and far more likely to do extra credit. My older kids attended an excellent HS with a deservedly strong honors/AP program. There were 3 sections of AP calc BC, with AP scores about evenly distributed 3-4-5, but more guys had 5s and far more guys dozed in the back rows and got As on the quizzes and tests (homework didn’t count). There was also no social pressure against girls doing well in math, or anything else. I’ve always felt that, at the upper levels, math is like music; some people have more innate talent, they just “get it” easier. It doesn’t mean they don’t need to work, but they don’t need to work as much as others, at least at HS levels.

  5. First, if they were using grades only, it’s worthless. But I think at one point it did mention test scores. I’d want test scores only.

    But yes, if you have two students who have equal scores and one works much harder than the other, then the obvious conclusion is that it comes easier for the one who isn’t working as hard.

  6. Supersub says:

    Before giving any thought to reasons that would legitimize this research, I at first fall back to the possibility that this is yet another flawed study.

  7. Cranberry says:

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find there’s a bias. It could be tested through the use of online courses. Assign a group of white boys and girls number identifiers. Don’t allow one group of teachers to know if “123A” is male or female. Allow the control group of teachers to know the students’ genders. Compare the assessments.

    Again, I think this bias very well may exist, because it has been shown to operate so strongly in…classical music. Blind orchestra auditions improved the gender ratios in performance groups. When judges were forced to rate musicians on their performance, without knowledge of the musicians’ gender, women were not shut out.

    Traditionally, women have been underrepresented in American and European orchestras. Renowned conductors have asserted that female musicians have “smaller techniques,” are more temperamental and are simply unsuitable for orchestras, and some European orchestras do not hire women at all. Proving discrimination in hiring practices, however, has been difficult.

    Using data from audition records, the researchers found that blind auditions increased the probability that a woman would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent. The likelihood of a woman’s ultimate selection is increased several fold, although the competition is extremely difficult and the chance of success still low.

    As a result, blind auditions have had a significant impact on the face of symphony orchestras. About 10 percent of orchestra members were female around 1970, compared to about 35 percent in the mid-1990s. Rouse and Goldin attribute about 30 percent of this gain to the advent of blind auditions.

    • Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

      OK, so what you’re saying is that it’s actually reasonable to think that men make better musicians (65% vs 35%, even with blind audition, right?), but that this sound mental heuristic has “bleed over” into discriminatory decisions, generating some false negatives.

      Fair enough. I’m all for blind auditions.

      But at the same time, we should be mindful against ascribing any sort of malicious sexism to the the prior decisions that were made. The evaluators, to the extent that they were influenced by the musician’s sex, do not seem to have been following a completely false, baseless decision-making rule. We shouldn’t rush to assume that they were trying to keep women down. They plausibly could have been just letting their actual experience influence their decisions in a reasonable but unhelpful way.

      Still, better decisions are better decisions, right?

      So more blind auditions!

      More race-blind admissions!

      • Cranberry says:

        OK, so what you’re saying is that it’s actually reasonable to think that men make better musicians (65% vs 35%, even with blind audition, right?)

        No. I’m saying is that the bias against female musicians was justified by a supposed lack of female musicianship–but when the judges didn’t know who was female, the odds were evened. 35% is a large sum, when one considers that the entire orchestra is not replaced at once, and musicians can practice their profession for a very long time. If spots open up as musicians retire, that would imply that the rate of female musicians winning available spots in blind auditions is higher than 35%.

        Another paper on the same phenomenon: Female musicians in the top five symphony orchestras in the United States were less than 5% of all players in 1970 but are 25% today. We ask whether women were more likely to be advanced and/or hired with the use of blind’ auditions. Using data from actual auditions in an individual fixed-effects framework, we find that the screen increases by 50% the probability a woman will be advanced out of certain preliminary rounds. The screen also enhances, by severalfold, the likelihood a female contestant will be the winner in the final round. Using data on orchestra personnel, the switch to blind’ auditions can explain between 30% and 55% of the increase in the proportion female among new hires and between 25% and 46% of the increase in the percentage female in the orchestras since 1970.

        increasing “severalfold” would mean an increase of 300% or more in the chance of winning. That isn’t a small effect.

        • Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

          increasing “severalfold” would mean an increase of 300% or more in the chance of winning. That isn’t a small effect.

          It may not be a “small effect” (however you want to define that) but…

          If you’re worth 5 cents, and I increase your net worth by 100,000 percent — no “small effect”, that — you’re still not going to be rich.