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In Math, Teachers' Unconscious Biases May Be More Subtle Than You Think

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Racial and gender stereotypes may color teachers' perceptions of students' math abilities, even when they rate students' performance equally.

A new study in the journal Educational Researcher, led by Yasemin Copur-Gencturk, assistant professor and math education expert at the University of Southern California, finds both white teachers and teachers of color interpret boys' math ability as higher than girls' and white students' math ability as higher than that of black and Hispanic students, even when the educators had judged students' math performance as equal.

The results suggest that gender and racial stereotypes in math can make it harder for girls and students of color to be respected and challenged in math even when they perform well. Prior research has found that lower teacher expectations and less teacher optimism about a student can create a self-fulfilling prophesy for students, who disengage over time.

"I don't think any teacher is intentionally having different expectations based on gender or race," Copur-Gencturk said. "That's why we need to increase awareness of implicit bias, so teachers are more aware of the implicit messages they are giving to their students."

Copur-Gencturk and her colleagues asked nearly 400 teachers—90 percent of them women and 65 percent white—to help them identify items for a new middle school math test. They were asked to judge how correctly students answered 18 extended-response math questions on a 10-point scale. Afterward, the teachers were asked to gauge each student's math ability on a separate 7-point scale.

All of the teachers received three student responses, which included a variety of correct and incorrect answers to problems of different difficulty levels culled from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The responses were randomly labeled with names associated with black, Hispanic, and white boys and girls. 

Teachers didn't favor any gender or racial group when evaluating whether each answer was fully, partially, or not at all correct. But bias showed up when teachers tried to interpret students' math ability from their answers, particularly when students had received partial credit.

Teachers, particularly white teachers, consistently rated "boys" as having higher math ability than "girls" for the same partially correct answer, and rated boys as having higher math ability even for incorrect answers. And when students answered incorrectly, researchers found white teachers judged "white girls'" math abilities much more negatively than they did those of students with names that sounded male, black or Hispanic.

Teachers of color also rated students with white-sounding names as having higher math ability than students with black- or Hispanic-sounding names for the same partially correct answers, and they rated "white boys'" math abilities higher than white teachers did. This finding runs somewhat contrary to other studies which have found, for example, that black math and reading teachers had higher college-going expectations for black students than white teachers did.

"That was kind of shocking to me," Copur-Gencturk said. While the study could not tease out reasons why teachers rated students as they did, she suggested one reasonable explanation: "We are constantly getting implicit messages through our interactions, even from TV. Maybe teachers who are coming from stereotyped groups are internalizing these messages. And then, the sad part is maybe we start to believe in them."

There's no easy fix to systemic cultural stereotypes that imply girls and students of color are less adept at math, but Copur-Gencturk said there is one easy way teachers can buffer against their own unconscious biases while also getting their students more excited and engaged in math: creating more discussions around math and consistently asking students to explain their reasoning when answering a question. "If you are giving them a chance to explain their reasoning, you are learning more about their thinking than just focusing on whether they answer [a problem] correctly or not," she said. "And it also helps teachers learn from their students, so there's an additional benefit to improve the quality of the instruction."

Photo source: Getty


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