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Female Teachers Pass on Math Anxieties

Girls in their classes performed worse and had stereotypical notions about boys' math prowess, study found

MONDAY, Jan. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Female elementary school teachers who are anxious about their math skills seem to pass on that lack of confidence to their female students, new research suggests.

Girls in their classes more likely to believe that boys were better than girls at math. And at the end of the school year, girls in the classrooms of math-anxious teachers had lower achievement in math than boys.

"The more anxious a teacher was, the more likely a girl was to believe boys are good at math and girls are good at reading, and the more likely she was to perform worse at math relative to boys and to girls who don't endorse the stereotype," said study author Sian Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

About 90 percent of the nation's elementary school teachers are female, according to the study in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Beilock and her colleagues assessed 17 first- and second-grade teachers' anxiety about math at the beginning of the school year. To gauge stereotypical notions, the students, including 52 boys and 65 girls, were told gender-neutral stories about students who were good at math or good at reading and asked to draw a picture of the student.

At the beginning of the year, there was no relationship between teacher anxiety and the students' math abilities. In fact, there was no difference in math abilities between boys and girls.

But toward the end of the school year, the higher a teacher's math anxiety, the lower the girls' math achievement. Teacher anxieties did not affect boys similarly.

The study also found that the more anxious female teachers were about math, the more likely girls were to ascribe to the stereotype that "boys are good at math and girls are good at reading." Girls who believed that stereotype performed worse in math than boys overall -- and worse than girls who didn't ascribe to stereotype.

Until recently, it was widely suspected that gender gaps in achievement in math and science had a biological basis, said Janet Shibley Hyde, a professor of psychology and women's studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Those notions have since been discredited. Research shows that on standardized tests, including state assessments required by the No Child Left Behind Act, female students do as well as males, Hyde said. One exception is the SAT used in college admissions, though the reasons for that are still being debated.

Today, women receive 48 percent of bachelor's degrees in math, although only 30 percent of doctorates in mathematics go to women. Women are also still underrepresented in math-intensive occupations such as physics and engineering, Hyde said.

Despite the narrowing achievement gap, research still indicates that girls remain less confident about their math abilities. "In general, gender differences are larger in math self-confidence than in math performance," Hyde said.

The study authors said further research is needed to determine what's going on in elementary-school classrooms to cause girls to absorb their female teachers' fears about math, while boys don't. The teachers who were anxious about math didn't necessarily have any worse math skills than teachers who felt more comfortable with math, Beilock said.

One possibility is that girls look up to and emulate the attitudes of their female elementary school teachers. Other research has shown that simply being aware of a stereotype can influence performance, Beilock said.

Another possibility, though this study did not look for any evidence of it, is that teachers call on boys more for math problems or pay more attention to them during math lessons.

Requiring would-be elementary school teachers to take higher level math courses while in college could help counteract the anxiety, Beilock said. Research has shown that elementary education majors have the highest rate of mathematics anxiety of any college major.

No matter the underlying cause, teachers should be aware of how they present math lessons and interact with their female students, Beilock said.

Girls' futures as engineers or physicists may depend on it.

"If girls are getting teachers who are high in math anxiety, it may start to affect those girls' ability," Beilock said. "One could imagine this could have a snowball effect, making them feel less confident, less interested and less likely to pursue schooling in math or related areas."

More information

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has another perspective on the math gender gap.

SOURCES: Sian Beilock, Ph.D., associate professor, psychology, University of Chicago; Janet Shibley Hyde, Ph.D., professor, psychology and women's studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Jan. 25-29, 2010, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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