Teaching & Learning

June 21, 2000 9 min read

Gender Gap in Math Achievement Closing, Analysis Finds

Young girls in the United States and throughout the industrialized world are catching up to boys in the math-achievement race, according to a new analysis of international test data.

“There’s been a precipitous decline in gender differences—in fact, it’s just about been wiped out—in the elementary and middle schools,” said David P. Baker, a professor of education and sociology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

But U.S. high school girls continued to lag behind boys on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, Mr. Baker told a forum of researchers and policymakers examining results of the 1995 program that tested students in 41 countries.

Mr. Baker compared the American boys’ and girls’ scores on the TIMSS exams with the gender differences on the first two versions of tests given in the 1970s and 1980s. He found similar reductions of the gender-achievement gap in other industrialized countries.

The TIMSS data don’t explain why 12th grade girls haven’t progressed as the 4th and 8th graders have. But it is clear that girls don’t slide from the 8th to 12th grade; boys’ scores simply rise faster than girls’ once they enter high school, Mr. Baker said.

Sandra Hanson

The gap may occur because social and educational choices expand for girls upon entering high school, suggested Sandra Hanson, a professor of sociology at Catholic University of America in Washington.

Once they hit adolescence, girls start to feel peer pressure to be involved in activities associated with being feminine, and excelling in math is not one of them, said Ms. Hanson, who also spoke at the June 1-2 conference sponsored by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

At the same time, schools allow students greater freedom in choosing their courses in high school, giving girls the option of ignoring higher-level math and science courses.

“We may find it harder to close the gap in high school,” Ms. Hanson said.

Career Continuum: Plans for restructuring the career of teaching seem to be in vogue.

Leaders of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers made news recently by endorsing plans for a five-step formula, through which educators would climb from “apprentices” to “accomplished teachers” by demonstrating new skills and by taking on more responsibilities. Now, the teachers’ union in the nation’s largest district is offering a similar proposal aimed at ensuring that new hires get support and at giving seasoned educators the chance to play greater leadership roles in their schools.

As outlined last month by New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, new teachers would be “interns” for up to two years, during which they would be guaranteed a reduced teaching load, as well as mentoring by more experienced colleagues. They would take on full loads when they became “residents,” and later could serve in some leadership positions—such as peer coaches to other teachers—when they became “career teachers.”

A select few, chosen for their mastery of subject matter and pedagogy by a panel of union and district representatives, could then go on to the system’s highest rung, a “leader in education and academic development,” or LEAD teacher. Such highly accomplished educators could exercise schoolwide leadership in staff training and curriculum development.

The “career continuum,” as union leaders call it, is based on the medical profession, and was designed to give teachers a chance to be recognized for professional growth without having to leave the classroom, said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated UFT. “The only promotion opportunity for teachers, up until now, has been to become an administrator.”

Progress through the continuum should be accompanied by pay increases, Ms. Weingarten added, but exactly how much won’t be dealt with until her union brings the plan to the negotiating table later this year when it begins contract talks with district leaders.

Peer Review: The nation’s second-largest school system, meanwhile, appears poised to embrace peer review for teachers.

Members of United Teachers Los Angeles last week approved a tentative agreement to let teachers get additional support and guidance from their colleagues. Under the plan, new teachers at low-performing schools and experienced teachers with unsatisfactory job reviews would each be assigned a “consulting teacher” to mentor them and help plan their professional development.

Retired teachers hired back by the Los Angeles Unified School District would be among those serving as consulting teachers, whose assessments of the educators they assist could influence district decisions about which teachers are retained and which are let go. But UTLA officials say the plan’s purpose is not punitive.

“We want to keep people in the profession if we can,” said Michael Romo, a professional- development specialist with the union. “So they are going to be given as much assistance and resources as we can give them to improve their performance.”

Union members began voting on the plan June 9, and the results were announced late last week. The district’s school board plans to vote on the plan later this month. If the proposal is approved, the district stands to reap more than $4.5 million in extra state aid, which the California legislature has allocated as an incentive for districts to adopt peer-review policies.

On the Move: The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is moving. The 13-year-old organization, which confers one of the profession’s most valued credentials, will transplant its headquarters from Southfield, Mich., to a Washington suburb.

The privately organized group has maintained a small office outside Washington for several years, but now is shifting most of its 45-person staff to Arlington, Va. The move should be completed by the end of the year, although about 20 staff members expect to stay in the Southfield location, which will function as a regional office.

Betty Castor

The move is one of several recent changes for the influential board. Last year saw the retirement of founding President James A. Kelly, who was replaced by Betty Castor, a former Florida state schools chief. The board also has established a new department to handle communications and marketing, a function that will become increasingly crucial as the group completes its last areas of certification. By fall 2001, the board plans to offer certification in 33 specialties, up from 15.

“This is trying to raise our profile and our visibility on a national scale,” Ms. Castor said. “We’ve largely depended on other groups to do that, but we think we need to do some of that ourselves.”

Even without such a concerted effort, the board is attracting increasing attention. This year, a record 9,506 educators are going through the rigorous evaluation, which includes videotaping their instruction, taking a series of written exams covering subject matter and pedagogy, and assembling portfolios of their work.

Last year, 6,124 teachers completed the process. About half earned board certification, a designation that qualifies them for additional pay in many states and districts.

Parent Opinion: Parents appear to be divided over whether state-mandated standardized tests are having a positive impact on classrooms, a survey released last week concludes.

In a poll of more than 600 parents, 57 percent said that “some academic-skill areas are being overlooked” because schools are dedicating so much time to preparing students for required tests. The same proportion said that some schools are neglecting the arts, science projects, and other “enrichment education areas” because of the focus on generating high test scores.

Still, half the respondents—all of whom are described as actively involved in their children’s education—to the telephone survey said they “support the purpose” of the assessments given in their states. About 25 percent said they opposed the tests, and the rest were undecided.

Likewise, 51 percent of the participants agreed that test results should be a factor in deciding whether a student earns a high school diploma, and the same number supported using the scores to decide on school accreditation.

Harris Interactive, a national polling firm, conducted the survey for Sylvan Learning Center, the division of the Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. that provides tutoring services through centers nationwide, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, an Alexandria, Va.-based professional group of school administrators.

Going Metric: Teachers should make the metric system “the primary measurement system in mathematics instruction,” asserts the nation’s largest group representing math teachers.

“On an international level in the scientific and industrial worlds, the metric system is the standard system of measurement,” says a statement from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a 100,000-member group based in Reston, Va. “To compete in a world that already functions with this system, our students also need to be competent with the metric system.”

U.S. schools also should teach the English system of yards and gallons, the NCTM says, because it is the primary unit of measure in the United States and Britain. But because the metric system is based on the 10-number base, it makes an excellent tool for teaching decimals, the teachers’ group says.

Winning Music: The Coppell (Texas) Independent School District and the Farmington, Mich., public schools have the best school music programs in the country, according to a recent survey of 5,800 educators. The two programs won accolades for high levels of student participation, funding, instructional time dedicated to music, and other indicators of strong programs.

At 2,350-student Coppell High School north of Dallas, for instance, the marching band includes 300 members, and the music program offers five choirs, with a total of 300 singers. Both the band and the choirs have won numerous state and national awards.

The Farmington district in suburban Detroit says music is more than an elective or extracurricular activity. “We don’t consider music or any of the arts as an add-on or an extra for the kids,” Superintendent Robert Maxfield, the superintendent of the 11,000-student district, said. “We believe that it is an integral part of their education.”

The coalition that sponsored the survey, released last month, included the National Association for Music Education, the Music Teachers National Association, and the National School Boards Association. It was conducted via the World Wide Web.

Other districts that scored in the top five were the Berea, Ohio, city schools; the Carmel Clay district in Carmel, Ind.; and the Plano (Texas) Independent School District.

Survey results are posted online at

—Jeff Archer & David J. Hoff

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2000 edition of Education Week as Teaching & Learning


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