New research indicates that elementary school girls show improved learning in math when they have a female teacher with a strong math background. The study also shows a consistently lower math performance by the end of the school year if the teacher doesn’t have a strong background in math. The study was 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 percenage 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.