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American Culture Seen to Thwart Girls’ Math Development

By Sean Cavanagh — October 17, 2008 3 min read
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Educators have worried for years that U.S. schools are squandering the mathematical talents of young girls, allowing them to fall victim to stereotypes that they can’t succeed in that subject, and shouldn’t take it seriously.

Now, a study finds that European and Asian countries are doing a better job of identifying and cultivating the skills of girls with superior math ability than the United States is.

Previous research has examined the differences in the performance and academic interests of male and female students in math, based on standardized tests given to broad student populations.

But the authors of the new study examine the gender and backgrounds of students with “profound aptitude” in the subject, as judged on extremely demanding tests of math skill, such as the International Mathematical Olympiad, the USA Mathematical Olympiad, and the Putnam Mathematical Competition, a college-level exam. The study was published this month in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, the journal of a professional organization of mathematicians, with headquarters in Providence, R.I.

The authors found that many countries consistently produce a higher percentage of girls with elite math skills than the United States does, which they attribute to a tendency in American society to discourage girls from pursuing those studies.

In the United States, “we have a country where there’s this social stigma that affects kids,” said Janet E. Mertz, a professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the authors. For girls in this country, she added, “the culture has become almost anti-math.”

When looking at participation on the International Mathematical Olympiad, the study found that 20 percent of the participating Russian team members from 1988 to 1997 were female; in Serbia and Montenegro, it was 8 percent. In the United States, by comparison, no girls took part. Other English-speaking countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, also had more female representation than the United States.

Countries can shape their ability to produce high-powered female math talent through educational, cultural, and environmental factors, Ms. Mertz said. She noted that from 1988 to 1997, 11 percent of the former East German math Olympiad’s participants were female, but that in West Germany, the percentage was zero. “It can’t be genetic,” Ms. Mertz said of Germany’s results. “It’s something going on in their environment.”

Overcoming Isolation?

Some researchers have questioned whether differences in intrinsic aptitude may be an explanation for why a higher proportion of boys than girls appear among both the highest- and lowest-performing groups of students on some math tests.

The new study does not address that controversial issue. But it does suggest, the authors write, that lack of female participation in math is a “changeable factor” that nations can influence.

The authors suggest several ways to increase U.S. girls’ interest and participation in math, including boosting support from teachers and counselors; doing more to honor top-performing math students, as other countries do; and increasing math specialization of teachers in the early grades, which the authors say would produce better-skilled and more highly motivated students.

Another recommendation is that the United States increase support for math-themed academies and speciality schools for gifted students. Nearly all the American students the authors studied who were born in the United States attended a “special public or elite private high school” with access to high-level math courses, they said.

Specialized schools put girls in an environment with students who like math and take it seriously, rather than those who see it as strange or socially isolating, said Janet Hugo, who directs the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, & the Arts, a public residential school.

Her school’s new female students quickly realize “it’s not important how I look, it’s important how I think,” she said. “There’s a real level of acceptance at a school like this.”

Ms. Hugo said she’s seen female enrollment in upper-level math classes at her 225-student school, located in Hot Springs, grow over time. Of 53 students this year taking college-level math classes, such as number theory and vector calculus, 13 are girls, an improvement over years ago.

“We used to have no girls in vector calculus,” Ms. Hugo said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week

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