January 22, 2005

If Lawrence Summers can tell an anecdote about his kids, so can I

I am the kind of parent who goes to parent/teacher conferences faithfully, even when I suspect the teacher may have little to say to me. That means that I went to 18 parent/teacher conferences for each of my two oldest children during their elementary school years. Both kids had the same teacher for almost every grade.

Whenever I went to a conference for my daughter, the teacher would almost always say, "Oh, she is such a reader. And wow, she is a good writer. I hope you encourage her to enter local writing contests, etc."

Whenever I went to a conference for my son, the teacher would almost always say, "Wow, he is really good at math. He is great at science. He really ought to think about a career in math/science."

Here's the strange part. If you look at the report cards and standardized test scores for my two oldest kids, the numbers are almost exactly the same. Academically, it's as if they have the same brain. (Not surprising, of course - similar genetic material and the same home environment.) I live in a state that really believes standardized tests so I have lots of data to work with. Both son and daughter consistently scored in the 99th percentile on standardized tests for math, yet it was rare for me to ever hear a teacher comment on my daughter's math prowess. Both kids are avid readers; both are terrific writers. Yet rarely did any teacher ever comment on my son's reading/writing skill even after he won several local writing contests.

More than one teacher has looked at my son's math scores and said, "Wow, he is really gifted in math. Is his father good at math?"

I always sigh and say, "No, his mother is."


Laura said...

Yep, it's the same thing here. My son always gets praised for his math skills, though to be fair, he has had a couple of teachers say he's a very creative writer. What I find more of is teachers willing to grant that boys may be good at typically "feminine" subjects, but girls are less likely to be good at math and science. We'll see the girl gets older. She does talk a lot about Buzz Bee, the science bee, but Kindergarten is not known for creating science geniuses. :)

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

The crazy thing is that I would predict this outcome almost every time. In most cases it's the result of the teacher not looking for what a kid is best at, but looking for what a boy or girl "should be" best at. The way that relatively rigid perceptions (and performances) of gender play out are very powerful. It's no surprise, then, to see how many college majors shake out along gender lines (feelings disciplines vs. thinking disciplines).

(weird biographical note): For a short while I taught at a Montessori school. The bulk of the students were 3 and 4 years old, yet they themselves already had these rigid perceptions. One little girl who wasn't yet 3 years old was stupefied that I have earrings since "boys don't wear earrings."

~profgrrrrl~ said...

This doesn't surprise me in the least.

I graduated at the top of my high school class, a safe distance above the #2 person, highest grades in math/science and music (lowest in English, actually -- a class that I detested for the teachers' ability to suck the life out of good books), and my guidance counselor every year tried to steer me away from the science classes.

Dr. H said...

These posts about boys/girls, math, teachers in schools, etc., have gotten me thinking... (yours, geeky mom's, anything about Summers, etc.), but I have not come out with anything thoughtful on my own blog about the subject.

I am a former middle school math teacher (for 3 years, prior to grad school). I was a math major in undergrad. I'm female. While teaching, it was always my mission to encourage the young people who appeared to me to have mathematics skills, yet were intimidated by mathematics for some reason. I was encouraging of both boys and girls, but my best memories are of the young women who would give me pictures, cards, gifts at the end of the year expressing how I helped them see themselves as someone who could do math. As a student, my achievement scores and grades in math, science, and English were all about evenly high, but for some reason, I always had to challenge teachers and counselors to let me in to the honors mathematics and science courses. I remember my mom challenging a 6th grade teacher who didn't recommend me for the advanced math in 7th grade. I remember meeting with a high school counselor and my mom to get placed in a higher level science class for 9th grade, because my 8th grade teacher did not recommend me for the class. Both of these teachers were female, for whatever that's worth. In college, I hadn't taken the AP test to place out of calculus, because I convinced myself that, even after two years of calculus in high school, it was a good idea for a math major to start again from scratch. During orientation for new freshmen, one of the adjunct faculty noticed my transcript and scores on the placement test, and she recruited me into the honors math classes at the university -- classes that I didn't even know existed. She asked me to sign up for her section. While some teachers did not look out for me, others have done so.

As a mathematics education researcher, I have resisted studying issues of sex and gender in mathematics learning... For lots of reasons... I don't feel like highjacking your comments anymore than I already have, though, jo(e). Thanks for an interesting post, as usual.

bitchphd said...

I won a math award in 8th grade. In 9th grade, my mother wanted me to skip algebra and go straight into geometry, but the (male) math teacher resisted it strongly. Mom won, but in part because of his resistance (and in part because of the social fear of being the only freshman in a sophomore honors class), I did very badly. The one test that I aced didn't help, because all the other students did poorly and were complaining that no one had done well, and the teacher singled me out as the ony student who had, which only made me more self-conscious.

In my junior year, I decided to repeat trig. I mostly slept through the class, but I was with all the other juniors, who were my friends. Then I took calculus and was one of the top students in the class.

In college, I actually planned to double-major in a humanities subject and a science subject. The rumors about how difficult organic chemistry was, however, scared me off--flashbacks of my high school math courses--so I opted for a minor in the science subject instead.

So yeah, who knows what would have happened if I hadn't, in my adolescence, been badly spooked by a teacher underestimating my math skills.

jo(e) said...

Does anyone know why random posts sometimes get removed by the blog administrator? This has happened a couple of times on my blog and it really annoys me. Anonymous had some good stuff to say but it got erased.

Anonymous said...

Hey, jo(e), you might be the one erasing the comments. When you read comments and you are logged in, be careful not to accidentally click on the little trash can icon.

Or maybe computers just hate you, the way cars and copy machines do.

Ianqui said...

Here's what's ironic. My mom is a programmer (and former college math major) and my dad is an electrical engineer. My sister is a physician, and my husband is also an electrical engineer. I'm surrounded by mathematically gifted people! Yet, I am totally idiotic when it comes to programming, statistics, equations, or using MATLAB. (Well, I'm better at stats than the others.) I don't enjoy it, and I'm not good at it, even though I ended up in a field that is increasingly turning toward mathematical methods. I don't remember if people actively encouraged me or not, but I certainly had plenty of role models!

More than anything in the world I wish that a talent for math would awaken in me. Or get implanted. However it needs to happen.

Moebius Stripper said...


I'm still in touch with my high school algebra teacher, the best high school math teacher in the world, and she had similar stories from the other side of the desk. During parent-teacher conferences with her weaker female students' mothers, she'd often be told "my daughter isn't very good at the subject...she takes after me; I could never do math."

When she met with her weaker female students' fathers, it was, "Math is daughter's worst subject...her mother struggled with it too." Never, "I'm bad at math and my daughter must have inherited that."

I wouldn't be surprised if your kids' teachers had internalized similar experiences they had with other parents, not that that makes it better. There's also the fact that it's socially acceptable for girls and women to giggle about how much they hate math and suck at it. I caught some of my students off guard last term when I told them that I was happy to help them learn the material, but that they were to leave [above] behaviour outside of both the classroom and my office. I refuse to encourage in any way the idea that it's acceptable for any of my students to remain wilfully mathematically ignorant; hopefully that'll trickle down if and when they deal with kids.

wolfa said...

Oddly, even in my very sexist religious elementary school, there was no question that the two top students in my grade (in math) were two girls, and the one year they tried -- briefly -- an enrichment program, we were the only two in that class to go. And though I don't know, never having been to interviews about my school performance, I certainly got my math skills from my mother. I've been fairly lucky, since most of the sexist assholes I've met have been peers, not profs.

But a good friend of mine thought all through high school, university, and her MSc that she couldn't do math, that she was terrible at science -- unsurprisingly, her marks were very low. I tried the "you just think you can't" stuff, but she resisted, and it wasn't worth any kind of argument over. Then suddenly for a new job, she had to learn it, and she could do it, she was interested and she understood, and -- wow! it must have been always that she just thought she couldn't!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I don't remember anyone discouraging me from pursuing math/science, but I discouraged myself - I remember very consciously thinking that I was good at language-y things, but not math/science, whereas my best friend at the time (a girl) was the other way around. As we were two of the top students in elementary/middle/high school, I suspect it was a way for use to avoid direct competition (we were fiercely competitive people!). I sailed along in honors everything until freshman year in high school, where I had a terrible honors math teacher and decided to drop down a level. I'm not really sure that I couldn't do the material as much as I hated the teacher so much and couldn't learn anything from him. My take on it was always that I was good at math but didn't like it, whereas I liked some of the sciences but didn't feel any good at them (I was fine at bio but no good with physics).

Interestingly, the top science/math students in my high school were women - our 2 co-valedictorians went on to get a Ph.D. in some kind of biology from Stanford and a Ph.D. in compsci from umm, I forget where, but now she's a prof at Berkeley. :-)

At both schools I've taught, biology has been DOMINATED by women students. They all want to go to med school. :-) Physics, math, chemistry all seem another story (whenever I run into women students majoring in such things I try to tell them how great that is, but I can't imagine my meager encouragement means much by that point).

Jane said...

ack. This sort of thing drives me batty. I posted something on my blog about my own experiences growing up, but luckily for me I did have teachers that went out on a limb and said I should be taking all the highest math and science courses.

As a professor, when I teach the intro course in my field, I make a point of reaching out to students, male and female, who I think have potential and specifically inviting them to take more courses in this field. Every single female student that I've spoken to about this has expressed shock that I would think they would be "good enough" to move on to the upper-level courses. And this happens even when the female student is the top student in the class and is blowing everyone else out of the water. So these sorts of messages do get internalized.

Thanks for posting this, and I hope you continue to push your kids' teachers to consider their words carefully!

wolfa said...

In my undergrad school, the chemistry program -- oddly -- cycled from 75% men to 75% women. But most of the female chemists at least started out as med-school-keeners (many changed their mind to stay in chemistry instead, but then headed for industry: it wasn't sexist to the students too much, but to other female faculty).

jo(e) said...

Interesting to read all your experiences. I was using the teacher atttitudes as an example, but parents and peers have even more influence. And where I'm from, the gender bias is blatant and ridiculous. Parents encourage their sons to go to college for some kind of math/science thing like engineering with the idea that "boys will need job with a decent salary because they will be supporting a family." You rarely hear a parent entertain the idea that a daughter might need to support herself. Most of the rigid gender role stuff comes from family and peers, but of course teachers have an influence too and I guess I would expect them to be a bit more educated about this kind of stuff. I do have to say a good word for my high school calculus teacher who tried very hard to get me to go into math, and 25 years later, will still see me in the community and say things like, "I can't believe you stopped with Calculus! You could have done anything in math you wanted!"