One of the first lessons that girls often learn in elementary school is that boys are better at math.

Although this incorrect lesson is certainly not part of the curriculum, first- and second-grade teachers, who are predominately female and math-averse, communicate that math is not their strong suit to some female students, according to a study published January 25 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers found that the girls who got the idea that math ability falls along gender lines had the worst achievement in this subject during the school year.

"We speculate that having a highly math-anxious female teacher pushes girls to confirm the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at math, which, in turn affects girls' math achievement," wrote the authors.


The research team, led by Susan Levine, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, based its study on two key pieces of information. College students majoring in early elementary education in the U.S., of whom 90 percent are female, hold the highest level of math anxiety compared to students majoring in other subjects. And elementary students emulate the behavior of same-gender adults more than opposite-gender adults.

To examine the impact of teachers' math anxiety on students' math achievement, Levine's group gave 65 female and 52 male first- or second-graders in five public schools in one Midwestern school district an arithmetic-based tests at the beginning and end of the school year. In these sessions, Levine's team also asked the students to draw pictures of a student who did well in math or reading and explain if that student was a boy or girl.

At the end of the school year, the researchers also graded the students' teachers, all of whom were female. The teachers were asked to complete a math exam. Levine's group also evaluated the teachers' math anxiety by asking them to rate how anxious they would feel in various situations, such as reading a cash register receipt or studying for a math exam.

Although there was no difference among the girls' and boys' math improvement, the researchers found that the girls, but not the boys, whose achievement did lag were also the students who acquired math gender biases during the school year. In the gender belief test, these girls drew a boy doing well at math and a girl at reading. Moreover, these changes in gender beliefs were found to correlate with the teacher's degree of math anxiety (but not her math ability).

Levine's team points out that these young children are also learning gender-based attitudes from parents, siblings and peers. But because teachers are probably confirming or strengthening sexist ideas about mathematical ability, the researchers suggest that elementary teachers be required to take more than the minimal college math courses. "More care needs to be taken to develop both strong math skills and positive math attitudes in these educators," the authors wrote. 

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