A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Well, I'm glad THAT'S settled.

Under the "Is this news?" category, here's a little love for all you math teachers out there. Especially since almost all of the ones I know are, um, female.
WASHINGTON - Sixteen years after Barbie dolls declared, "Math class is tough!" girls are proving that when it comes to math they are just as tough as boys. In the largest study of its kind, girls measured up to boys in every grade, from second through 11th. The research was released Thursday in the journal Science.

Parents and teachers persist in thinking boys are simply better at math, said Janet Hyde, the University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher who led the study. And girls who grow up believing it wind up avoiding harder math classes.

"It keeps girls and women out of a lot of careers, particularly high-prestige, lucrative careers in science and technology," Hyde said.

That's changing, though slowly.

Women are now earning 48 percent of undergraduate college degrees in math; they still lag far behind in physics and engineering.

But in primary and secondary school, girls have caught up, with researchers attributing that advance to increasing numbers of girls taking advanced math classes such as calculus.

Hyde and her colleagues looked at annual math tests required by the No Child Left Behind education law in 2002. Ten states provided enough statistical information to review test scores by gender, allowing researchers to compare the performances of more than 7 million children.

The researchers found no difference in the scores of boys versus girls — not even in high school. Studies 20 years ago showed girls and boys did equally well on math in elementary school, but girls fell behind in high school.

"Girls have now achieved gender parity in performance on standardized math tests," Hyde said.

The stereotype that boys are better at math has been fueled, at least in part, by suggestions of biological differences in the way little boys and little girls learn. This idea is hotly disputed; Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard, was castigated in 2005 when he questioned the "intrinsic aptitude" of women for top-level math and science.

Joy Lee, a rising senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., says she always felt confident about math, but remembers how it felt to walk into a science class full of boys. "Maybe I was a little bit apprehensive about being the only girl, but that didn't last for very long," said Lee, president of a school club that tries to get young girls interested in science and technology, along with engineering and math.

"I definitely do encourage other girls to pursue those interests and to not be scared to take those courses just because there are not very many girls or because they think they're not good enough to do it," Lee said.

Still, while there are fewer women in science and technology, there are more women in college overall. To Hyde and her colleagues, that helps explain why girls consistently score lower on average on the SAT: More of them take the test, which is needed to get into college. The highest-performing students of both genders take the test, but more girls lower on the achievement scale take it, skewing the average.

For the class of 2007, the latest figures available, boys scored an average of 533 on the math section of the SAT, compared with 499 for girls.

On the ACT, another test on which girls lag slightly, the gender gap disappeared in Colorado and Illinois once state officials required all students to take the test.

As Hyde and her colleagues looked across the data for states' testing, they found something they didn't expect: In most states they reviewed, and at most grade levels, there weren't any questions that involved complex problem-solving, an ability needed to succeed in high levels of science and math. If tests don't assess these reasoning skills, they may not be taught, putting American students at a disadvantage to students in other countries with more challenging tests, the researchers said.

That might be a glaring omission, said Stephen Camarata, a Vanderbilt University professor who has researched the issue but was not involved in the study.

"We need to know that, if our measures aren't capturing some aspect of math that's important," Camarata said. "Then we can decide whether there's an actual male or female advantage."

A panel of experts convened by the Education Department recommended that state tests be updated to emphasize critical thinking.

While some states already have fairly rigorous tests, "we can do a better job," said Kerri Briggs, the department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

"If we're going to be globally competitive, we need students who are able to do higher-level math skills," she said.

Back in 1992, Barbie stopped saying math was hard after Mattel received complaints from, among others, the American Association of University Women.

So far, while her current career choices include baby doctor and veterinarian — and Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, too — Barbie has not branched out into technology or engineering.

I loathe Barbies anyway, so that "Math is tough," quote particularly made my blood boil. But perception is the name of the game here. As long as girls believe that they are bad at math, this problem will persist. And where do they get this idea that they're bad at math? It is subtly and sometimes not so subtly reinforced in society, in their families, and sometimes in the schools. Can't be good at math and be beautiful? Tell that to actress Danica McKellar. And to be honest, our society has a problem with encouraging interest in mathematics in our young people in general, whether male or female. But that's another rant.

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At 7/24/08, 3:25 PM, Blogger Clair Dickson said...

I think the current youth in general have a tendency to want to avoid "hard work". I think the higher maths, along with physics, and such are considered "hard".

What drives me nuts is when I get a really bright kid my alternative high school classes because he "doesn't want to work hard." Aside from being really wrong about our program (it is hard work) he'll complain all semster while the kid who's recovering from drugs/ been kicked out in favor of mom's new boyfriend/ has mental or physcial problems/ etc. is working her tailfeathers off and SO grateful for the opportunity to finish school.

If nothing else, I think apathy is the greatest concern I see in the next generation. (And I'm not that far removed from 'them'!)

At 7/24/08, 5:28 PM, Blogger Lightly Seasoned said...

Right. And wait for it: the next study will show how we're shortchanging boys blah blah blah. Because we all know education is a zero sum game, so if girls are doing better, boys are doing worse.

At 7/25/08, 8:17 AM, Blogger Goldie said...

I don't know what's wrong with you Americans ))) I am a math major that graduated from one of the strongest schools in Russia, and in our classes we had maybe one boy to ten girls. Now physics and engineering, that's another story ;)
But I agree with the previous poster, I'd like to do these studies for a living, it's a gold mine. You can spin the data to arrive at any conclusion you want, and it can go on forever.
Barbies, of course, are evil and must be destroyed.


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