Gender gap in math starts in kindergarten, study says

Gender gaps in math achievement and teacher expectations that boys are stronger at math than girls start to form by kindergarten, according to a study released Thursday by the American Educational Research Association.

The study also found that teachers consistently underrated girls’ math skills, even when boys and girls behaved and performed in similar ways academically.

While the gender gap starts early among high-achieving math students, it spreads quickly to all students throughout elementary school. And both high- and low-achieving schools are impacted, according to the report.

“If schools are addressing biases, it’s not happening effectively,” said Joseph Cimpian, lead author of the study and associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University’s Steinhardt School.

The study looked at two cohorts made up of several thousand students from across the country starting in 1998-1999 and 2010-2011. The cohorts were based on the federal government’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which tested students’ math skills and separately asked teachers how proficient they thought the students were in 10 specific areas.

“It’s alarming that 12 years later with a younger generation of teachers and with all of the focus on getting girls into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) … that you would have seen some changes,” but so far there haven’t been changes in the way that the gender gap develops or changes in the way teachers are underrating girls, Cimpian said.

Recent evidence stating that the gender gap had closed on state exams was not reflected in the AERA study. The tests carried out by the federal government in the two kindergarten cohorts may detect gaps where state tests do not. In addition, the amount of practice teachers and students put into state tests and the rarity of higher-level thinking questions offer reasons that more work still needs to be done, according to the AERA report.

“There still exists a notion that math and science are not really ‘girl’ subjects,” said math tutor Dina Weinberg of Bronx, N.Y., a former elementary school teacher and mother of two daughters.

Based on societal expectations, elementary school girls tend to follow behavioral rules of school more closely, which can affect the dynamics in the classroom, Weinberg said.

“It can happen that the teacher, rather unconsciously, calls on the boys more frequently to solve problems or demonstrate problems on the board,” Weinberg said.

Making parents and educators aware of their unconscious biases and behaviors is an important first step of lessening the gender gap in math, said Reshma Saujani, CEO of Girls Who Code.

“I think teachers often have the best intentions — they’ve picked a career that’s all about helping our young people — but we’re all influenced by a culture that says that subjects like math and computing are for boys,” she said. “It’s everywhere we look — from Silicon Valley on HBO to a T-shirt at a popular teen girl retailer that says ‘Allergic to Algebra.’

“Our culture is telling all of us — teachers included — that math and computing is not for girls, so it’s no wonder it’s showing up in our classrooms,” Saujani said.

On average, there’s no gender gap in math when students first enter kindergarten with one exception, affecting the highest achievers in math. Students from higher socio-economic backgrounds enter kindergarten with a gender gap in math, according to the report.

The exact reason for this isn’t known, Cimpian said, but it points to other research connecting higher socio-economic families with “gendering” activities at a young age — organized sports and dance lessons for boys and girls, respectively. Gendering in the top percent might spill over and exacerbate how the gender gap in math develops, he said.

Intervention programs could positively affect teachers’ perceptions that girls aren’t as strong as boys in math. Given the large amount of time that teachers spend with students, it’s a really important group in which to intervene, Cimpian said.

Girls Who Code provides training for teachers so that they can anticipate and address the specific barriers that girls face in computing classrooms, such as stereotype training and spotlighting women in tech to make sure students see a representative sample of role models.

“We also need to address culture head on and change the perception of what a mathematician or a programmer looks like and does,” Saujani said, pointing as an example to a series of videos that Girls Who Code released last spring about the stereotypes that keep women out of tech.

“This problem sounds daunting, but I believe it’s absolutely solvable. In the last 30 years, we’ve seen the gender gap close in career fields like law and medicine,” Saujani said, adding that, “I think we can see the same thing happen in computing and related fields, we just have to be willing to act and to prioritize our girls.”

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