Female teachers can transfer fear of math and undermine girls' math performance

Female elementary school teachers can pass on their anxiety and stereotypes about math to female students, and girls who adopt this outlook perform worse at math, research at the University of Chicago shows.

These findings are the product of a yearlong study of 17 first- and second-grade teachers and 52 male and 65 female students, which found that a teacher's math anxiety affected the math achievement of girls but not boys.

"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," said Sian Beilock, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago. She is lead author of a paper, "Female Teachers' Math Anxiety Affects Girls' Math Achievement," published in the Jan. 25 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Beilock is an expert on anxiety and stress as they relate to learning and performance.

Other authors were University graduate students Elizabeth Gunderson and Gerardo Ramirez as well as Susan Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

More than 90 percent of elementary school teachers in the country are women, and often they get their teaching certificates with little mathematics preparation. Other research shows that elementary education majors have the highest rate of mathematics anxiety of any college major.

The potential of these teachers to impact girls' performance has important consequences. Teachers' anxiety might undermine female students' confidence in learning mathematics and also may decrease their performance in math-dependent subjects such as science and engineering.

To determine the impact of teachers' mathematics anxiety on students, the team assessed teachers' anxiety about math. Then, at both the beginning and end of the school year, the research team tested the students' level of mathematics achievement and their gender stereotypes.

To assess stereotypes, the students were told gender-neutral stories about students who were good at mathematics and reading, and then were asked to draw each type of student. Researchers were interested in examining the genders of the drawings that children produced for each story.

At the beginning of the school year, student math achievement was unrelated to teacher math anxiety in both boys and girls. By the end of the school year, however, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls, but not boys, were to endorse the view that "boys are good at math and girls are good at reading." Girls who accepted this stereotype did significantly worse on math achievement measures at the end of the school year than girls who did not accept the stereotype, and than boys overall.

Girls who confirmed a belief that boys are better in math scored six points lower in math achievement than did boys or girls who had not developed a stereotype (102 for the girls who accepted the stereotype, versus 108 for other students).

Other research has shown that adults' attitudes strongly influence elementary school children, and that this relationship is strongest for students and adults of the same gender. "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," Beilock said.

The authors suggest that elementary teacher preparation programs could be strengthened by requiring more mathematics preparation for teachers and by addressing their issues of math attitudes and anxiety.

The National Science Foundation provided funding for the study.