Female elementary school teachers can unknowingly pass along their anxieties about mathematics to their girl students, who then score lower on achievement tests compared with boys in the same class, according to new research from the University of Chicago.
The yearlong study found that female elementary school teachers pass along their anxiety about math to girl students, which then undermines the students’ confidence in their own math skills. This can also cause girls to perform poorly in math-dependent subjects such as engineering and science.
The researchers conclude that teachers need more math training before entering the classroom.
The Chicago study found that many teachers-about 90 percent of the country’s elementary school teachers are women-receive their teaching certificate with little mathematics preparation. The teachers’ concerns about their own math skills are then passed along to girls in their classes. However, the study found that teachers’ anxiety does not impact boys’ math ability.
“Having a highly math-anxious female teacher may push girls to confirm the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at math, which in turn, affects girls’ math achievement,” writes Sian Beilock, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago and the lead author of the study.
The study, “Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievement,” was published in the Jan. 25 issue of “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”
Along with Beilock, Stella Rowley, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and two graduate students followed 17 first- and second-grade teachers, along with 52 boy students and 65 girl students, for 12 months. The study tested the students early in the year and found that both boys and girls were not affected by math anxiety.
Later in the year, the researchers found that as the teachers became more anxious about their own math skills, girls were more likely than boys to develop doubts about their own math skills. The study found the girls who were affected by their teachers’ concerns did worse on standard tests than boys and that some girls began accepting the stereotype that “boys are good at math and girls are good at reading.”
“Thus it may be that first- and second-grade girls are more likely to be influenced by their teachers’ anxieties than their male classmates, because most early-elementary school teachers are female, and the high levels of math anxiety in this teacher population confirm a societal stereotype about girls’ math ability,” writes Beilock.
The researchers conclude that programs that prepare teachers for the classroom should focus more energy and resources on developing the math skills of their teachers. Teachers also need help in coping with and overcoming their anxiety when it comes to math, according to the report.