Equation for Success

Female Teacher questions pupils at mathematics

gender 300x216 Equation for SuccessI’m not sure they really needed a study for this, but they did one anyway. That’s what government grants are for. And while the results can be interpreted in various ways – as is almost always the case – they do warrant serious consideration.

The purpose of the study was to examine the growing literature that addresses the issue of the effects of teacher gender roles on student performance. While it would be absurd to argue that either women are naturally better teachers than men, or vice versa, the point of current research is to clarify if students of one gender will achieve more with a male or female instructor. 

This interested me in that it focused on Mathematics instruction, comparing achievement patterns among both male and female students. This particular study caught my eye because of another study released approximately one year ago by researchers in the University of Leeds in England. The latter challenged the commonly accepted notion that the reason men dominate the higher levels of mathematics achievement and accomplishment is due mostly to gender stereotyping. Erik Robelen, writing in 1 Education Week remarked:

The researchers examined 20 studies that sought to replicate the original 1999 research on the stereotype threat. In doing so, they say they discovered that many of the subsequent studies had serious flaws, including the lack of a male control group and improperly applied statistical techniques.

The new study says that while most researchers agree that gender differences exist in math achievement at the higher levels of performance, “the really interesting question is what factors contribute to these differences, especially given that it will be impossible to close the gender gap without understanding these factors.”

The researchers continue: “When policymakers believe that achievement differences in mathematics can be overcome by simply reducing stereotypical beliefs (as the literature suggests), they might not be willing to invest in the study of other potential contributing factors and thus will not pursue solutions for these factors.”

It therefore piqued my interest to read of this recent research which did find other factors that may contribute to the mathematics gender gap. 

The newer study found no significant difference between male and female achievement when the math class was taught by male teachers. They found this to be true no matter how strong the teacher and regardless of his background. However, this pattern of equal achievement did not hold true when the class had a female instructor. When the teacher had a strong math background the above pattern continued. However, when the female teacher had a weak background, girls’ achievement suffered more dramatically than did the achievement of the boys.

I guess it would not take a genius to suggest that girls may identify more with a female teacher and might pick up on their teacher’s lack of confidence and adopt it as well. Unfortunately, this would seem to create a vicious cycle, where weaker female math teachers create weaker female math students. This might explain why focusing solely on gender stereotyping has not had the desired effect, and calls for a different plan with which to attack the gap.

While it would be ludicrous to demand that girls’ math classes be taught only by male teachers, the study does highlight the need for teachers to be confident and competent in the subjects they teach. While we did not need a study to prove that the quality of our teachers significantly impacts the quality of learning, it is nevertheless essential to remind ourselves just how powerful that equation might be.

1 http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2012/01/a_new_study_casts_doubt.html?qs=gender

2 Responses to Equation for Success

  1. John Pat Bourassa says:

    There are soooo many factors not taken into account! Family economic and educational backgrounds and expectations to reading skills, Prior (math) academic performance to intensity of one’s academic short-term vs. long-term goals. This list can go on and on and on and … it’s a rainbow of variables ranging from in-school to out-of-school, to immediate to long-term elements. And – as we all know – rainbows change! However, these results are important; simply not over-whelming.

    • Karmi Gross says:

      Success in school is indeed predicated on a plethora of variables, many well beyond the control of the school. It is important for teachers to always pay attention to this fact and gauge expectations accordingly. The point to be stressed is that ‘real world’ achievement does not necessarily parallel academic achievement and that educators should examine those seemingly hidden success factors that may go ignored in the classroom.

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