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For girls, teachers' gender matters, study says

education week
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This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in Education Week.


by Sarah D. Sparks

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Female elementary school teachers' comfort with mathematics has an outsize effect on the girls they teach, according to new research.

Girls taught by a female teacher got a learning boost if that teacher had a strong math background, but had consistently lower math performance by the end of the school year if she didn't, according to a study presented at the American Economic Association's annual conference.

By contrast, boys' math scores were not affected by having a female math teacher, regardless of the teacher's background in that subject, and there were no differences in math performance among male and female students of male teachers of different math backgrounds. The study adds to growing evidence that children's gender biases can significantly affect their own ability.

"Children's perceptions of gender start emerging between the ages of 7 and 12," said study coauthor I. Serkan Ozbeklik, an assistant economics professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Positive or negative, the primary school experiences may shape the academic course of students, leading to long-term consequences like choice of study, choice of major, and occupation."

Scope of research

Researchers led by Heather Antecol, an economics professor at Claremont McKenna, analyzed the mathematics performance of more than 1,600 1st through 5th grade students under 94 teachers in 17 high-poverty, high-minority schools in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta region between the 2001-02 and 2002-03 school years.

On average, the teachers had more than six years of experience, but only 11.5 percent of the study's students had a teacher with a bachelor's degree in math or a related field like engineering, economics, or accounting. Nearly a third of the teachers were men, far above the national average of only one-tenth of primary school teachers.

Ms. Antecol and her colleagues found that girls taught by a female teacher, as opposed to a male teacher, saw their math test scores drop by 4.7 percentage points by the end of the school year. Moreover, those girls performed on average 1.9 percentage points lower than their male classmates, about 10 percent of a standard deviation. The researchers characterized both effects as strong.

By contrast, boys saw no drop in math performance under the same teachers.

While education-watchers have voiced similar concerns about gender stereotyping of boys' reading ability, the study found no differences between boys' and girls' reading performance based on having a male or female teacher.

Seeking explanations

The findings prompt the question: Does this mean men are naturally better math teachers than women? Not at all, according to the researchers. When they broke out students' performance based on their teachers' college math background, the gender gap disappeared. Girls taught by women with a strong math background actually got a boost compared with their male classmates. Also worth noting, the researchers found no evidence of differences in teaching styles between the women and men teachers.

Marianne E. Page, an economics professor at the University of California, Davis, who was not part of the study, said the findings build on "a rapidly expanding literature on teacher gender and student achievement."

She said she was surprised by the findings. "It's really hard for me to believe that math competence matters only for female students with female teachers and not male students," Ms. Bertrand said. "It may be that the psychology of the situation speaks to that."

In particular, the paper points to evidence from a 2010 study by Sian L. Beilock, a University of Chicago psychology professor and the author of Choke, a 2010 book on brain responses to performance pressure.

Ms. Beilock found that 1st and 2nd grade girls who started the school year performing as well as boys, but then were taught by a female teacher with high anxiety about math, had lower math scores than their male peers by the end of the year. Moreover, those girls were more likely to draw pictures evoking gender biases that suggest "boys are good at math, while girls are good at reading."

Ms. Beilock's study did not include male teachers — in part because they can be hard to come by in primary school — but Mr. Ozbeklik, co-author of the male-female comparison study, said the new study does seem to suggest that a teacher's math anxiety or adeptness could aggravate or lessen students' gender gaps in the subject.

The link between a teacher's comfort with her subject and student achievement could also explain why studies of college-age students generally find women performed better in math classes taught by other women, Ms. Page said.

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