In his novel Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad describes his hero as having "Ability in the abstract..." In schools we use "ability" in the same sense: some children have ability while others are not so blessed.
But although we seem to know what ability is, sometimes the facts make us question our conceptions, as does the article "How our education system undermines gender equity" from a recent Brown Center Chalkboard.
The question raised by the article: "Do teachers' beliefs about boys' math ability contribute to the boy-girl math gap?"
The answer to the question is the basis of a research study by Joseph Cimpian and colleagues and is based on data from The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study for two cohorts of children, kindergarten class of 1998-99 and that of 2010-11, following the children in each cohort through grade 3. There were 5,000 children in 1998-99 and 7,500 children in the 2010-11 cohorts.
Cimpian's research attempted to identify when the boy-girl gap disparities appeared, whether the gaps changed over the years, and in addition, attempted to connect such gaps with children's learning behaviors and teacher expectations.
When boys and girls enter kindergarten they are about at the same level in their mathematics proficiency, however, by grade 3, boys have pulled away from their female peers, a gap that will grow as the children move from grade to grade.
Even more pronounced is that the gap is wider for the children who do best in math, that is, in testing language, the students who perform "at the top of the mathematics distribution."
The researchers found that both the 1998-99 and 2010-11 cohorts were very similar: the gaps at the higher distribution was present as early as kindergarten. In both cohorts girls represented only one-third of children scoring in the 99th percentile. In both cohorts, the disparities did not just persist, they grew larger over time. While only one-fifth of those scoring in the 99th percentile at grade 3 are girls among the children in the 1998-99 cohort. In the 2010-11 cohort, the gap is at grade 2.
The gender gap in math (0.25 standard deviations by second or third grade) is almost identical to the black-white math test score gap. While the black-white math test gap is attributable to the differing socio-economic background of the schools students attend, the math gender gap occurs within the same schools. Accordingly, Cimpian says this "suggests that something may be occurring within schools that contributes to an advantage for boys in math."
Cimpian and his colleagues found that when they pushed deeper by talking with teachers in the study, they found that beliefs about student ability may play a role in what the teachers expect from boys and girls.
Teachers reported that if a boy and a girl performed at the same level on math tests and were rated by teachers as equal in classroom behavior and engagement with their school work, teachers still rated the boy as more mathematically able, and attributed the girl's performance to the result of extra hard work on her part to make up for the difference in ability.
As Cimpian put it, "in order for a girl to be rated as mathematically capable as her male classmate, she not only needed to perform as well as him on a psychometrically rigorous external test, but also be seen as working harder than him."
Further analysis of the data collected suggest to Cimpian that about half of the achievement gap growth is attributable to the teachers underrating of girls' mathematical "ability."
That our expectations about our students are so sneaky that we may not even realize we have them is illustrated by a conversation that Cimpian had with a small group of elementary teachers who were asked to think of ways that the researchers could "intervene on the notion that girls were innately less capable than boys. One of the teachers pulled a stack of papers out of her tote bag, and spreading them on the conference table, said, 'Now, I don't even understand why you're looking at girls' math achievement. These are my students' standardized test scores, and there is absolutely no gender difference. See, girls can do just as well as the boys if they work hard enough.' Then without anyone reacting, it was as if a light bulb went on. She gasped and continued, 'Oh, my gosh, I did exactly what you said teachers are doing,' which is attributing girls' success in math to hard work while attributing boys' success to innate ability. She concluded, 'I see why you're studying this.'"
Cimpian, Joseph (2018). How our education system undermines gender equity. The Brown Center Chalkboard, April 23, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2018/04/23/how-our-education-system-undermines-gender-equity/
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.
S²TEM Centers SC is an innovation partnership managed by South Carolina’s Coalition for Mathematics & Science at Clemson University. Its purpose is to serve South Carolina by growing the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) possibilities and capabilities of learners and leaders.
Copyright © S²TEM Centers SC 2018