Math isn’t just for ‘math people’

I’m just not a math person” is “the most self-destructive idea in America today,” write Miles Kimball and Noah Smith in The Atlantic. You’re not just limiting your own future. “You may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability.”

Mathematicians need high math ability, write Kimball and Smith, economics professors who’ve taught math. But few of us are aiming that high. “For high-school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.”

Belief in inborn math ability may be responsible for much of the math gender gap, according to Oklahoma City researchers, they write.

Psychologist Carol Dweck and colleagues found students do much better if they believe “you can always greatly change how intelligent you are” than if they think “you have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.”

In Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard Nisbett recounts what happened when Dweck and colleagues told poor minority junior high school students that intelligence is malleable and can be developed by hard work. Learning changes the brain by forming new connections and students are in charge of this change process, psychologists told the students.

Convincing students that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades. The intervention had the biggest effect for students who started out believing intelligence was genetic. (A control group, who were taught how memory works, showed no such gains.

But improving grades was not the most dramatic effect, “Dweck reported that some of her tough junior high school boys were reduced to tears by the news that their intelligence was substantially under their control.”

Kimball and Smith conclude: “It is no picnic going through life believing that you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way.”

More try STEM majors — and quit

More students are trying — and quitting — STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors, reports USA Today.

Interest is up, says UCLA Professor Mitchell Chang. Persistence is not.

Many students aren’t prepared for the rigors of introductory chemistry and calculus, says Clemencia Cosentino de Cohen, a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research. Women are more likely to drop the major.

“If women get a B, they think they’re failing. A man gets a B, and he’s happy. They say they’re acing the class,” Cosentino says. “Women who go into hard sciences, they’re very driven, they’re very high achieving, and if they’re not performing at that very top level, they become discouraged, and they think that it is not for them.”

Tough grading in science classes leads to attrition, a 2010 Cornell study found. STEM students realize they can work less and earn higher grades in liberal arts courses.

The S in STEM has been oversold, writes Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews.

“Employers are paying more, often far more, for degrees in the fields of technology, engineering and mathematics (TEM),” College Measures President Mark Schneider wrote in his report, “Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates Than for Others.”

But “evidence does not suggest that graduates with degrees in biology earn a wage premium — in fact, they often earn less than English majors,” Schneider wrote. “Graduates with degrees in chemistry earn somewhat more than biology majors, but they do not command the wage premium typically sought by those who major in engineering, computer/information science, or mathematics.”

A TEM bachelor’s degree qualifies a graduate for a good job. An S bachelor’s degree usually isn’t enough on its own, though it can be the first step to a medical degree.

How to make school work for boys

“American boys across the ability spectrum are struggling in the nation’s schools,” argues Christina Hoff Sommers in The Atlantic. There are ways we can make school better for boys, writes Sommers, author of The War Against Boys.

First, we have to “acknowledge the fact that boys and girls are different.”

In many education and government circles, it remains taboo to broach the topic of sex differences. Many gender scholars insist that the sexes are cognitively interchangeable and argue that any talk of difference only encourages sexism and stereotyping.

Yet, “boys are languishing academically, while girls are soaring,” writes Sommers, who has plenty of statistics to back up her case.

Career tech education works well for many boys (and some girls), Sommers writes. In Massachusetts’ network of 26 academically rigorous vocational-technical high schools, students “take traditional academic courses but spend half their time apprenticing in a field of their choice. These include computer repair, telecommunications networking, carpentry, early childhood education, plumbing, heating, refrigeration, and cosmetology.”

These schools boast high graduation and college matriculation rates; close to 96 percent of students pass the states’ graduation test.

Blackstone Valley Tech in Upton, Massachusetts, should be studied by anyone looking for solutions to the boy problem.  It is working wonders with girls (who comprise 44 percent of the student body), but its success with boys is astonishing. According to a white paper on vocational education by the Commonwealth’s Pioneer Institute, “One in four Valley Technical students enter their freshman year with a fourth-grade reading level.” The school immerses these students in an intense, individualized remediation program until they read proficiently at grade level. These potentially disaffected students put up with remediation as well as a full load of college preparatory courses (including honors and Advanced Placement classes), because otherwise they could not spend half the semester apprenticing in diesel mechanics, computer repair, or automotive engineering.

However, career tech education faces a challenge from the National Council on Women and Girls Education, which considers vocational schools as hotbeds of “sex segregation,” writes Sommers. The consortium and its members have spent decades lobbying to force career tech programs to get female students into “non-traditional” fields.

Over the years, untold millions of state and federal dollars have been devoted to recruiting and retaining young women into fields like pipefitting, automotive repair, construction, drywall installing, manufacturing, and refrigeration mechanics.  But according to Statchat, a University of Virginia workforce blog, these efforts at vocational equity “haven’t had much of an impact.”

In March 2013 NCWGE released a report urging the need to fight even harder against “barriers girls and women face in entering nontraditional fields.” Among its nine key recommendations to Congress: more federal funding and challenge grants to help states close the gender gaps in career and technical education (CTE); mandate every state to install a CTE gender equity coordinator; and impose harsher punishments on states that fail to meet “performance measures” –i.e. gender quotas.

“Instead of spending millions of dollars attempting to transform aspiring cosmetologists into welders, education officials should concentrate on helping young people, male and female, enter careers that interest them,” concludes Sommers. And the priority should be providing education options that motivate our neediest students, boys and young men.

Women earn 58.4% of college degrees

collegegap

For every 100 male college graduates in the class of 13, there are 140 women, the U.S. Education Department estimates. That’s a “stunning” and growing gender gap, writes Mark Perry on AEI Ideas. Since 1982, women have earned 9.7 million more degrees than men.

Do colleges need all those women’s centers? he asks.

College

Study: Girls can compete in math

Competitive Timed Tests Might Be Contributing to the Gender Gap in Math, writes Emily Richmond inThe Atlantic.

Boys do better than girls in timed math contests. But a new study of Utah elementary students finds that girls do just as well as boys in a second round of math competition and begin to do better by the third round. Furthermore, “the first-round advantage for boys disappeared if the time element was removed from that competition,” writes Richmond.

“One of the reasons girls don’t do well in competitive settings is that they don’t think they’re as good as boys—but they really are,” said Brigham Young University economist Joseph Price, one of the study’s co-authors. “That’s an information problem, rather than evidence that girls are destined for a certain outcome.”

‘Getting something right in one shot” and “working within a rigid time limit” isn’t a big part of learning math, argues Richmond, who admits she was lousy at timed math drills in school. “Isn’t it more about mastering concepts and building skills over a longer time frame, and having the patience to tackle challenging problem sets that might require multiple attempts?”

Richmond is worried about the gender gap in math. I worry about the gender gap in reading, writing, history, civics and biology, as well as the gap in high school graduation, college enrollment and college graduation. Schoolboys aren’t outperforming schoolgirls in very much these days.

Not the language of scientists

Today, the New York times quoted an expert — a psychologist. Either that, or they reached for some random person halfway across the country to offer a viewpoint they really liked. But it seems like they wanted to have comments by a scientist. Here’s what the psychologist had to say about the fact that New York City admits more boys than girls to its top elite schools (which admission is apparently only by exam):

“It is very suspect that you don’t have as many girls as boys in New York City’s specialized schools,” said Janet S. Hyde, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin who has published research on girls’ performance in math and science from elementary school through college. Individual girls might be losing opportunities, she said, “but it is also bad for society as a whole because in a global economy we need to identify the best scientists and mathematicians.”

When a scientist says that something is “suspect”, what they are supposed to mean is that it might not be true.

“I discovered cold fusion,” I might say.

“That seems suspect,” the scientist might reply.

But Dr. Hyde (that was cheap — eds.) is not using the language of scientists. She’s saying that it’s morally suspect, and opining about what is good and bad for society. Which is fine, I suppose — people can opine about these issues, and people in one of my fields (Philosophy) make it part of their job. But if Dr. Hyde isn’t speaking as a scientist, then we’re really back to “some random person in Wisconsin thinks admitting students to a school based solely on an examination is a bad idea because they apparently think the tests don’t identify the best scientists and mathematicians.”

In which case, why do I care?

The question of whether schools should be allowed to use a single examination for admissions is an interesting one. I don’t think that the answer is obvious, and I encourage a lively debate in the comments. But I’m also pretty sure that the mere fact that these examinations yield male majorities in the students body doesn’t make them any more suspect as tools for identifying mathematical ability than nearly every college admission system in the country is made suspect as an indicator of academic excellence by the fact that they seem to admit more females. Different admissions systems measure different things — and as one of my former professors was fond of saying, “[evaluations] don’t measure what they want to measure, they measure what they measure.”

In any case, the question is certainly not going to be settled by the random musings of some person in Wisconsin who thinks that the tests are “suspect”.

(Of course, it’s not going to be settled by the random musings of an attorney-philosopher, either. But I’m neither trying to settle it nor being quoted for my expertise in the New York Times.)

Where are the college men?

There’s no gender gap for community college students who are recent high school graduates, but women outnumber men by as much as three to one among students 25 or older. Where are the college men?

Georgia raised black male college enrollment by 80 percent and degrees awarded by 60 percent from 2002 to 2011 through a variety of initiatives targeting black males.

Where are the college men?

Where are the college men? Female high-school students are more likely to aspire to a college degree, enroll and graduate than their male classmates. That’s true on leafy liberal arts campuses — and even more true at community colleges, which provide affordable job training.

Men are “conspicuously absent” on the campus of Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, writes Hanna Rosin in The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. Although the college president tries to “recruit more boys,” 70 percent of MCC students are female. Many are single mothers.

Few girls take shop: Is it a problem?

A “shop stigma” is keeping girls out of traditionally male vocational courses, NPR worries.

Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX, which said no person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from any education program or activity. Vocational education courses that barred girls — such as auto mechanics, carpentry and plumbing — became available for everyone. But it’s still hard to find girls in classes once viewed as “for boys only.”

Zoe Shipley, 15, is also the only girl in her high school’s auto tech course. Her parents are pressuring her to switch to engineering, which they see as less greasy.

Her high school’s construction management courses attract only a few girls, NPR adds.

It’s up to schools to “take extra steps” to recruit girls to “courses that lead to higher-paying careers in technology and trades,” instead of low-paying fields, such as child care and cosmetology, says Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center.

I think schools should make sure students know how much they’re likely to earn if they pursue auto mechanics, carpentry, child care or cosmetology. But the low female enrollment in auto shop isn’t really about bias — or parental pressure.

Update: In praising Title IX in a Newsweek commentary, President Obama said it’s a “great accomplishment” for America that “more women , , , now graduate from college than men.”  I know he didn’t really write it, but he should have read it before he let it be sent out. Far too many males are doing poorly in school, failing in college and — because they didn’t learn vocational skills such as auto mechanics — struggling in the workforce. This is a serious problem for America — and for the young women who’d like to marry a guy with a decent job.

Can gaming close the high-tech gender gap?

To close the high-tech gender gap, “encourage your daughters to play video games,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told Dana Goldstein.

. . .  childhood gaming and hacking experience has motivated many computer programmers to enter the field, including Sandberg’s boss, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The leap toward more advanced computing comes not only from playing games—today, 94 percent of girls are gaming, compared with 99 percent of boys—but in becoming curious about how they work and then beginning to tinker with code in order to modify game results. Boys are still much more likely than girls to explore this type of simple computer programming, and not every young girl who is curious about how computers work has an encouraging parent at home or the hardware she needs.

So it’s not just the gaming. It’s the tinkering. My nephew just got hired (first paying job out of college!!!) by a company that makes “pink market” fashion design games.  Girls might learn about fashion design, but I don’t think they’ll learn programming. That’s Alan’s job. (He may know less about fashion than anyone on the planet.)

K-12 educators are trying to hook girls on the “computational thinking” that makes programming possible, writes Goldstein.

The Academy for Software Engineering, a public school whose curriculum will be built around computer programming and Web development, will open in New York City this September. Just one-quarter of the incoming freshman class is female, but the school’s founders, who are closely tied to the New York tech community, have ambitious plans for pairing female students with women mentors working in the field, in order to tamp down on attrition, direct girls into meaningful careers, and recruit more female students to the school in future classes.

In Pajaro Valley, Calif., south of Santa Cruz, researcher Jill Denner launched a program that teaches low-income Latina girls and boys, in gender-segregated classrooms, to create their own computer games.

I’m skeptical that mentors or “pink” games will turn girls into programmers, but I guess it’s worth a try.