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Study Questions Popular Explanation for Gender Gap in Math

A new study casts doubt on the popular notion that a gender stereotype—namely, that girls are bad at math—explains why men dominate the higher levels of mathematics achievement and accomplishment. The researchers suggest that evidence is "weak at best" for what's been called the "stereotype threat" explanation.

They suggest this comes at a real cost, because focusing interventions on this particular issue leads to neglect of other, and possibly more promising, paths to better gender balance in the math field.

"The stereotype theory really was adopted by psychologists and policymakers around the world as the final word, with the idea that eliminating the stereotype could eliminate the gender gap," said David Geary, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, in a press release issued today. "However, even with many programs established to address the issue, the problem continued. We now believe the wrong problem is being addressed."

The new study, co-authored by Geary and Giljsbert Stoet from the University of Leeds in England, will soon be published in the journal, Review of General Psychology.

The two researchers examined 20 studies that sought to replicate the original 1999 research on the stereotype threat. In doing so, they say they discovered that many of the subsequent studies had serious flaws, including the lack of a male control group and improperly applied statistical techniques.

The new study says that while most researchers agree that gender differences exist in math achievement at the higher levels of performance, "the really interesting question is what factors contribute to these differences, especially given that it will be impossible to close the gender gap without understanding these factors."

The researchers continue: "When policymakers believe that achievement differences in mathematics can be overcome by simply reducing stereotypical beliefs (as the literature suggests), they might not be willing to invest in the study of other potential contributing factors and thus will not pursue solutions for these factors."

For those especially interested in research on math education, here are a few links to other studies we've highlighted on this blog and elsewhere at edweek.org over the past year. One especially popular story with readers was Sarah D. Sparks' article about the causes of math anxiety. In addition, we've featured:

• A study finding that U.S. students typically encounter an easier math curriculum than those in many other nations, with wide differences also seen across states and school districts.

• A study that offered insights into the kinds of math skills children should learn early on to be best prepared for success in the subject as they advance into higher grades.

Research showing that a lack of language skills can hamstring a student's ability to understand basic concepts in mathematics.

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