An Interview with Catherine Riegle-Crumb: Math Matters and Math Inferences

May 7, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Recently you published an article indicating that “ Math Teachers Demonstrate a Bias toward White Male Students”. Where and when was this conducted?

We conducted the study over the past year.

2)      How many students were in your sample?

Our sample includes approximately 15,000 students who were sophomores in high school in 2002. The data was collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, which is overseen by the Department of Education.

3)      Now, let’s get some specifics- when you refer to the “math teachers “were they predominately men or women math teachers?

Our sample has about 55% female teachers and about 45% male teachers. This is indicative of the fact that the gender distribution of high school math teachers is roughly equitable in the last decade or so.

4)      Math is a subject where, basically there are right and wrong answers- little subjectivity- yet teachers seem to hold stereotypes, if you will of gender and race. Tell us about some of them.

Our results indicate that teachers feel that math is easier for their white male students than for their white female students. This is regardless of the fact that the white male and female students have comparable grades and test scores. We suggest that this discrepancy in teachers’ ratings of student’s ability is evidence of teachers’ endorsing stereotypic beliefs. Interestingly, while teachers do rate minority males and females as having lower math ability than white males, this goes away when we account for the fact that minority students tend to have lower grades and test scores in math. Put differently, if a Hispanic female student and a white male student have the same grades and the same test scores on standardized exams, then the teacher rates them no differently in terms of ability. So the only consistent evidence of bias or stereotyping we find is that which works against white females.

5)      Estimation is a key math skill- but it seems that teachers seem to either over-estimate or underestimate the learning of their pupils- True or False?

I think that’s true based on our evidence. But we need to remember that teachers are subject to the same fallacies as everyone else. Just because you are a math teacher doesn’t mean that you aren’t susceptible to endorsing stereotypes or other misconceptions. And we should be clear here that the bias we find is likely implicit. In other words, it may very well be unconscious and teachers are not even aware of it.

6)      Let’s talk sample size however- are you drawing conclusions based on a very small number of say African American females in upper division math classes?

Because we use a large national dataset that over-samples minority students, that’s less of a problem. We still have several hundred minority students in advanced math classes.

7)      Where was your work published and how can math teachers get a copy?

Our work is published in a journal called Gender & Society. The website is:

8)      Let’s talk “Cultural expectations“since you use that word in your study. Where do these come from, and how can parents combat them?

Well that’s a big question. By definition, cultural expectations are ideas and values broadly held by a given society. Even in the new millennium we still have different expectations for men and women. We often expect girls to do less well than boys in math, particularly as they get older. The best way to combat this is to confront these stereotypes– as parents, as educators, as citizens. Because women have made great strides in so many areas in the past decades, and overt discrimination is less likely to occur in the classroom or the home than was traditionally the case, we often forget that subtle bias can linger and have large consequences over time. If we are aware of that, than we are more likely to recognize it and stop it in the moment.

9)      Since we have all this standardized testing going on, can one really say that there is bias in the classroom anymore, specifically since teachers are continually getting information about their  pupils?

As I said before, the bias we see exists despite the fact that teachers have feedback which contradicts it. This is an issue of interpretation. Even if two kids have the same score on a test, I can still decide that one kid is just naturally better at math than the other.

10)   What have I neglected to ask?

I think that covers it! Thank you!

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