A new study finds that high school students identify more with math when they see their math teacher treat everyone in the class equally, especially in multiracial schools. The study, by researchers from Portland State University, Loyola University Chicago and the University of North Texas, was published in the journal educational sociology. Dara Shifrer, an associate professor of sociology at Portland State and a former middle school math teacher, led the study.
Who is good at math? How you answer this question may depend on where you live. While people in East Asian countries are more likely to believe that hard work can lead anyone to success in math, people in the United States are more likely to believe that people need a natural talent in the subject to be successful. This perception means that students in the United States may be particularly vulnerable to racial and gender stereotypes about who is and isn’t “good at math.”
“Americans don’t realize the weird stereotypes we have about math,” says Shifrer. “This is where kids are really doomed.”
The fact that some high school students are more likely to quit math than others has important implications for their individual futures and for the lack of diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers.
“US STEM Spaces are not a meritocracy,” says Shifrer. “The cultural biases we hold about people’s identities, status traits like race and gender, and our cultural stereotypes about math and science and who belongs to them play a key role in who enters and does well in these fields. As more educators and students become aware of this and act against it, access and representation could shift.”
In the study, Shifrer and colleagues sought to determine whether teachers could counteract cultural bias and help students develop a positive “math identity” — a sense of seeing themselves as a “math person” or as someone who is in mathematics can be successful. Specifically, they hypothesized that ninth graders who perceived their math teacher as more equitable—treating everyone in the class fairly and providing clear resources for success—would have stronger math identities.
To test this hypothesis, the team used data from surveys of nearly 30,000 ninth graders from across the United States collected in 2009 by the National Center for Education Statistics. These surveys assessed how fair students felt about their math teachers by rating their agreement with statements such as “My math teacher treats every student fairly” and “My math teacher believes all students can be successful.”
In their analysis, the researchers grouped students according to their race and gender, as well as the racial composition of their school’s student body – that is, whether they attended a racially mixed school, a school where they were racially diverse, or a school where they were racially diverse most of their living peers shared their race. They also controlled for factors that could be alternative explanations for an apparent relationship between teachers’ perceived fairness and mathematical identity, such as: B. Previous performance in mathematics, type of school, social advantages and the preparation of teachers for mathematics classes.
The results showed that students who viewed their math teachers as more just had stronger math identities than those who viewed their math teachers as less just.
“When teachers teach in a way that children find fair and effective, it really makes a big difference in how students think about math,” says Shifrer.
The researchers also found that this positive effect of equitable instruction on students’ attitudes towards mathematics was strongest in schools with different races.
“It seemed like teachers were more important in those schools, maybe because race is more obvious in those schools,” says Shifrer. “Kids look around and notice that there are racial differences in students, and maybe they think more about whether they are the kind of students who are good at math. The teachers really had room to make a difference in schools like this.”
While the relationship between teacher equity and mathematical identity was evident across races, there was an interesting exception. Black students generally had a strong mathematical identity regardless of their teacher’s actions.
“There’s a kind of resilience where these students are persistent and fight against racial stereotypes,” says Shifrer. “They reject those dominant narratives and think, ‘I belong here; I am good at it.'”
Shifrer says similar results have been found in other studies looking at black students’ educational attitudes.
“[Black students] are often more positive about school and what education can do for them,” she says. “But there wasn’t much work to flesh out the details.”
A limitation of this study is that the researchers cannot say definitively that the teacher’s behavior preceded the student’s feelings about math.
“It could be that kids who identify more with math perceive their teachers more positively,” says Shifrer. “But it makes sense that teachers who behave more fairly will improve the way kids feel in the classroom.”
Learning about the factors that influence students’ mathematical identity is important because a student’s attitude toward the subject affects the courses they take as well as future career choices. This study suggests that teachers may have a larger role in helping students develop a positive mathematical identity than previously thought.