Equity & Diversity

Women’s Association Demands Removal of Researcher From National Math Panel

By Sean Cavanagh — June 28, 2006 4 min read

An advocacy group that promotes increased participation for women in mathematics is calling for the removal of the vice chairwoman of a newly formed national panel studying how to improve student performance in that subject, citing objections over research she conducted in the 1980s on gender differences in math reasoning.

The Association for Women in Mathematics is collecting signatures for a petition asking the Bush administration to remove Camilla Persson Benbow from the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, an expert group established by the White House earlier this year. The 17-member panel is staging its second set of meetings today and tomorrow in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University

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The association, which is based in Fairfax, Va., and says it has 4,100 members, takes issue with three articles written by Ms. Benbow in the 1980s. One of those articles examines the possibility of differences in mathematical reasoning ability between males and females, particularly among those with strong ability in the subject.

The Association for Women in Mathematics’ petition says that the articles conveyed the belief that there are “intrinsic gender differences that favor males at the highest levels of mathematics.” The petition argues that there is considerable research that contradicts Ms. Benbow’s findings.

“It would be unfortunate if the work of the Panel were to be disregarded because of an actual or perceived bias against women,” the petition reads. “We urge the removal of Dr. Benbow from the panel.”

But Ms. Benbow, a widely published scholar, said she stood completely by the research in the three articles cited by the association. The first article, “Sex Differences in Mathematical Ability: Fact or Artifact,” appeared in the journal Science in 1980; a second article was published in Science in 1983; and the third appeared in Behavioral and Brain Science in 1988. Subsequent research has drawn similar conclusions to hers, Ms. Benbow said in an interview at the meeting. She said she had no plans to step down from the panel.

Ms. Benbow noted that she has conducted extensive research on how gifted girls and boys learn math, work that she believes has benefited both females and males in that subject.

“They’re taking a very myopic view of my work, and not looking at what I’ve done over the last 25 years,” said Ms. Benbow, a professor of educational psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “I’ve spent my life [studying mathematical] talent in math and science in males and females. I think that counts for a lot.”

Ms. Benbow has served as the Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College since 1998, according to the biography provided by the panel. She has written or co-written more than 100 articles and edited two books. She also received numerous awards and distinctions for her work, including a distinguished scholar award from the National Association for Gifted Children.

Ms. Benbow said she first learned of the petition by the Association for Women in Mathematics a few days ago. She said she was surprised, because she had not heard criticism of her papers from the 1980s “in over 20 years.”

Colleague Defends Panelist

Earlier this year, President Bush established the National Mathematics Panel to identify research and effective strategies for teaching and learning in that subject. The panel’s work comes at a time when federal officials have voiced great interest in boosting the skills of K-12 students in math and science, in part to bolster the nation’s long-term economic competitiveness.

The panel’s 17 members include one current classroom teacher, psychologists, educational researchers, and mathematicians. For the meeting in North Carolina, the panel has broken up into four groups to study different areas of math: conceptual knowledge and skills; learning processes of students with different abilities; instructional practices; and professional development.

The Bush administration issued a statement of support for Ms. Benbow, citing her strong reputation and research background.

“Dr. Benbow is a highly respected educator who brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the math panel,” said Valerie L. Smith, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. “Under the leadership of [panel chairman Larry R. Faulkner] and Dr. Benbow, we’re confident the panel will provide thoughtful, complete recommendations.”

The second day of the meeting will include a session devoted to public comment. On its Web site, the Association for Women in Mathematics said it intended to have a written statement voicing concerns about Ms. Benbow’s work included in those comments. An official from the association could not be reached for comment.

Another member of the panel, Deborah Loewenberg Ball, said the group’s criticism of Ms. Benbow’s work was misguided. Ms. Ball, the dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan, said the statements made in the petition amounted to a “political argument, not a scientific one.”

The goal of the panel is to examine and encourage research in math and science, not derail it if certain groups did not approve of its findings, Ms. Ball said.

“They’re trying to remove her because they don’t like her conclusions—that doesn’t seem right to me,” Ms. Ball said during a break from the panel’s meetings. “They should be trying to help us draw conclusions about math … having people snipe at the panelists does not help things.”

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