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Teachers think boys are better at math, study shows

If you were a teacher, you might have the impresion this student isn't as good at math as she actually is.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP

Math class may be easier for boys than girls. But it's not necessarily because of their abilities.

Instead, math teachers unjustifiably favour white, male students, according to a study published in the journal Gender & Society.

Researchers Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Melissa Humphries of the University of Texas at Austin examined data from the U.S. National Center of Educational Statistics for a group of 15,000 high-school students. That data included surveys of math teachers, who were asked to rate individual students on whether their math courses were too hard, too easy or appropriate for them.

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Those ratings were then compared with students' math scores to see how the teachers' perceptions matched up with students' actual performance.

According to a press release, the researchers discovered teachers' perceptions of the abilities of their white, male students were higher than were reflected in the students' grades. In comparison, teachers thought their white, female students were performing worse in their math classes than they actually were.

"We find evidence of a consistent bias against white females, which although relatively small in magnitude, suggest that teachers hold the belief that math is just easier for white males than it is for white females," the authors wrote.

The researchers found no negative stereotypes when it came to minority students, however. They discovered that math teachers actually favoured black, female students in advanced math classes. "Perhaps teachers view the few black females in their advanced courses as having achieved much to make it this far, suggesting greater perseverance and a very high degree of academic potential," the authors wrote.

They note that more research is needed to examine how teacher bias plays out in high-school classrooms, as students likely become more attuned to teachers' expectations as they grow older.

The researchers also suggest that biases at the high-school level indicate broader cultural expectations of males and females in the fields of math and science.

Parents, do your own perceptions of your children's ability match up to their actual performance?

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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