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Teacher bias may help discourage girls from math, study finds

Despite all the talk about encouraging girls in math and science, many teachers still harbor unconscious biases that dissuade girls from going into these fields, a new study suggests.

Israeli researchers found a gender bias in math grades given to girls and boys at the elementary school level, according to the report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Our results suggest that teachers themselves are part of the problem,” said the study’s lead author, Edith Sand, an economist at the Bank of Israel and an instructor at the Tel-Aviv University’s Berglas School of Economics. “They are discouraging girls and encouraging boys to get to a higher level of math and science. So there’s a gender gap in the teachers’ perceptions of their students.”

Sand discovered the gender bias by comparing the results of tests scored by teachers who knew the children and their names, to those graded by outside scorers who weren’t told anything about the identity of the test takers.

What she saw was striking. When teachers knew the children's names and identities, they graded the girls lower in math than the outside grader, while scoring the boys higher. As a test, the researchers checked to see if the same kind of bias was occurring in other school subjects—it wasn’t.

To see if there was any long term fallout from the biased grading, the researchers followed the children all the way through high school. They found that girls who had been downgraded in elementary school were less likely to sign up for advanced math and science courses in high school.

The researchers suspect that the bias is unconscious. “I am sure they are completely unaware of it,” Sand said.

This isn’t the first study to show that girls’ interest in math tends to drop off as they get older, but it may well be the first showing that teacher bias could be part of the problem, said Patrick Tolan, a professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and director of Youth-Nex, the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.

“Early experience imprints on girls,” Tolan said. “They tend to follow the initial reactions from their teachers: what they are good at, what is appropriate for a girl or a boy to do.”

While the study was performed in Israel, experts say the findings are just as applicable to the U.S.

“It is a very pervasive and deeply held idea that math and math-related fields are not good for girls because they are not going to be good at it,” said Marianne LaFrance, a professor of psychology and women, gender and sexuality studies at Yale University. “So there’s no point in educating them in it because they won’t thrive.”

LaFrance says she encounters female college students every year who have been discouraged from taking courses in math and science simply because of their gender.

What’s changed over the years is that the discrimination against girls has gone “underground,” LaFrance says, adding “it’s more subtle now.”

Unfortunately, LaFrance says, the message doesn’t have to be overt to get through to girls.

You’re fighting against the popular image of a scientist as a white male in a lab coat with a pocket protector, says Carolyn Parker, an assistant professor of STEM education at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. Parker believes the solution is to educate teachers about their unconscious biases against girls.

In lieu of that, parents can be sure to boost their little girls’ self-confidence, making sure they understand that are capable of succeeding at any subject, LaFrance says.

Tolan suggests parents be proactive if they think their girls are being discouraged from pursuing math and science. “I think parents should advocate in a respectful and diplomatic way when they think their child is not getting the opportunities they should because of gender,” he says.

This article was originally published Mar. 9, 2015 at 3:11 p.m. ET.

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