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A 'Damning Set of Data': Subtle Differential Treatment of Girls and Blacks

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Making mathematics and science seem useful may be a particularly important factor in addressing the underrepresentation and relatively lower achievement of female and minority-group students, some researchers believe.

In general, girls score lower than boys, and most minority groups score lower than whites, on "higher-level" problems that require students to figure out how to manipulate data, rather than to simply perform a computation or memorize a formula.

When the results are adjusted to account for the greater number of courses boys take, some researchers say, the gender-based differences in achievement become minuscule. But they remain concerned that the achievement gap and the different experiences they have in school will inhibit girls' and minorities' ability to compete in a technology-based economy.

And while some researchers are examining possible physiological causes, such as brain organization and spatial perception, others contend that physiological factors are either minor or irrelevant; they are focusing instead on what schools can do to counteract societal pressures that contribute to differences based on race and gender.

"We're trying to find out just what it is that attracts students," says Cora B. Marrett, a University of Wisconsin sociologist who is studying achievement and attitudes

among minority-group girls. "One of the things that is taking place is precisely the absence of role models. Students may have done well enough in the courses, but it never occurs to them to make it a career.

"Beyond that," she adds, "it's important that they have a sense that the people in those fields are making social contributions and [that] teachers make clear the uses of mathematics or science. The greater sense the students get that these are fields that are meaningful and not just a career, the more likely they are to go on with it."

Ms. Marrett recalled one college student, an exceptionally gifted mathematician, who chose to go into economics because, as he explained it, "economics has some meaning and mathematics is so abstract."

"He didn't like the idea of sheer competitiveness, didn't like the idea of doing the work just for the sake of doing the work," Ms. Marrett says. "I think that's very common, particularly with minority students."


A growing body of research suggests that teachers and other school personnel treat girls and minority students differently from white male students with regard to science and mathematics.

For example, Jane Butler Kahle, professor of biological sciences and education atue University, has found that, as groups, girls and black students have less experience with actually performing experiments, taking field trips, and using equipment than do white males, even when they take the same courses. "It's a real damning set of data," she says, "and consequently, they score lower."

Elizabeth Fennema and others have found that, even in elementary school, teachers tend to interact more with boys than with girls in mathematics classes. Boys with "high confidence levels" tend to be called on most to give answers in class, she says, and girls with the highest confidence levels receive the least attention from teachers. The behavior and achievement vary from classroom to classroom and from school to school, she cautioned, but the same patterns show up in many schools.

Furthermore, Ms. Fennema notes, educators tend to tolerate girls who are not doing well in mathematics. "Schools get terribly concerned when boys don't do well in reading; they send them to remedial classes and make a great effort to help them. I would like to see the same kind of intensive effort in math. Quite often, girls with problems are not referred to remedial classes because the girls are not behavior problems."

Girls' attitudes toward mathematics and science appear to turn for the worse in middle or junior high school--about the time they begin taking an interest in boys and do not want to compete with them. (Ms. Fennema's research indicates that boys are much more likely to view mathematics as a "male domain" than are girls.)

Other "affective" factors such as autonomy and "fate control"--students' sense that they can determine the course of their lives--have been used to help explain the high attrition rate of girls and minority students from math and science courses.

Ms. Fennema, noting that the two subjects require independent work, theorizes that teachers and parents, with the best of intentions, tend to help young girls to the extent that "they do not develop the kind of independence that they need to do math."

She has also found that girls are much more likely than boys to attribute their successes in mathematics to outside factors such as luck and good teachers. Boys tend to attribute their successes to ability and hard work, their failures to bad luck. This pattern, she contends, heavily influences the decision of many girls to drop out of mathematics and science.

Ms. Kahle has found similar patterns with black students in urban school systems, who also tend to attribute success to luck. "The notion of fate control is lower in minority students," she says. "That's why it's real important that they get a chance to work with equipment. Give them the equip, and they see that the experiment comes out the same each time. If they can see that they can control that, they can maybe control other things."

She adds, however, that the minority students she has studied "have very, very positive attitudes about science. They're positive they can do science. At least you've got that attitude to build on."


Children who are behind in mathematics are often intimidated by some common games and techniques, Ms. Chapman says, and their self-confidence is further eroded. "College math professors say kids love puzzles. Well, the kinds of kids that those math professors used to be do love puzzles. For kids with weaker skills, a puzzle is another opportunity to fail. It's another chance not to get it. To kids who have poor skills, 'noodling' with numbers is a mystery, and puzzles are just agony," asserts Ms. Chapman.

Ms. Kahle and Penelope L. Peterson, a University of Wisconsin educational psychologist who is working with Ms. Fennema, suggest that seemingly minor alterations in teaching techniques and materials can help girls and minority students "feel more a part of the class."

Ms. Peterson, for example, says that girls seem to be more comfortable with wordlems in mathematics if some of the problems concern topics that are traditionally in the female domain, such as recipes.

Similarly, according to Ms. Kahle, there is no reason a sewing machine cannot be used to demonstrate some mechanical concepts. "There has to be a conscientious effort to involve girls," she says. "They can't be allowed to pair with boys [in biology laboratories] and let the boys handle the frog."

For urban minority youngsters, Ms. Kahle adds, a highly structured classroom with as few interruptions and as many"hands-on" experiences as possible has been shown to produce achievement gains.

Ms. Fennema is convinced that relatively modest interventions can change the attitudes that often inhibit girls from pursuing math. She developed a series of videotapes, for example, aimed at students, teachers, counselors, and parents, that stressed the importance of mathematics and attempted to show that it is not an "unfeminine" discipline. In the high schools where the series was piloted, attitudes changed measurably and female enrollments in upper-level mathematics courses increased.

But she believes that, in most schools, pressure on girls not to pursue mathematics and science remains pervasive. "There are some cosmetic changes. We no longer have sexist books in schools, and I seldom hear an overtly sexist comment. But when I look at the behavior that I think is truly significant, it's not changing. I think teachers really are concerned, but the discrimination that goes on is so subtle that they don't recognize it."--pc

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