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12 December 2011

Praise: University of Wisconsin on Gender Equity in Mathematics

There are a lot of myths in education regarding gender.  Boys are better at math and science and girls are better at the humanities.  This is nonsense, but the data to prove that it is nonsense can be challenging.  Professors Janet Mertz and Jonathan Kane of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) have done so in a study released today and have some interesting advice to achieve more balanced outcomes.

Former Harvard University President Larry Summers became famous in education circles when he claimed that boys were biologically more acclimated to sciences.  From the UW study
The new study, by Mertz and Jonathan Kane, a professor of mathematical and computer sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, was published today (Dec. 12, 2011) in Notices of the American Mathematical Society. The study looked at data from 86 countries, which the authors used to test the "greater male variability hypothesis" famously expounded in 2005 by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, as the primary reason for the scarcity of outstanding women mathematicians.
That hypothesis holds that males diverge more from the mean at both ends of the spectrum and, hence, are more represented in the highest-performing sector. But, using the international data, the Wisconsin authors observed that greater male variation in math achievement is not present in some countries, and is mostly due to boys with low scores in some other countries, indicating that it relates much more to culture than to biology.
 The new study also dismissed a 2009 study that advocated same-sex schools as a remedy.
The Wisconsin study also debunked the idea proposed by Steven Levitt of "Freakonomics" fame that gender inequity does not hamper girls' math performance in Muslim countries, where most students attend single-sex schools. Levitt claimed to have disproved a prior conclusion of others that gender inequity limits girls' mathematics performance. He suggested, instead, that Muslim culture or single-sex classrooms benefit girls' ability to learn mathematics.
By examining the data in detail, the Wisconsin authors noted other factors at work. "The girls living in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Bahrain and Oman, had, in fact, not scored very well, but their boys had scored even worse, a result found to be unrelated to either Muslim culture or schooling in single-gender classrooms," says Kane.
 The solution:
"We found that boys — as well as girls — tend to do better in math when raised in countries where females have better equality, and that's new and important," says Kane. "It makes sense that when women are well-educated and earn a good income, the math scores of their children of both genders benefit."
Mertz adds, "Many folks believe gender equity is a win-lose zero-sum game: If females are given more, males end up with less. Our results indicate that, at least for math achievement, gender equity is a win-win situation."
Which means:
Mertz and Kane recommend increasing the number of math-certified teachers in middle and high schools, decreasing the number of children living in poverty and ensuring gender equality.
Most teachers already understand the importance of children having good living conditions.  In theory, at least, we understand the need to ensure gender equality (although living in a society that has built-in biases it is impossible to be completely unbiased).  The need for highly qualified teachers is at odds with the current political climate of cutting school funding.  This needs to change.  We need to follow the recommendations of Professors Mertz and Kane.

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