Think you’re good at math? Study suggests it may be because you had fair math teachers — ScienceDaily

A new study finds that high school students identify more with math if they see their math teacher treat everyone in the classroom fairly, especially in racially diverse schools. The study by researchers at 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 high school math teacher, led the study.

Who can do well in math? How you answer this question may depend on where you live. While people in East Asian countries tend to believe that hard work can lead anyone to success in mathematics, people in the United States are more likely to believe that people need natural talent in the subject to succeed. This perception means that students in the US may be particularly susceptible to racial and gender stereotypes about who is and who is not “good at math.”

“Americans don’t realize what weird stereotypes we have about math,” says Shifrer. “It really sets kids up for failure here.”

The fact that some high school students are more likely to drop out of math than others has important implications for their individual futures and the lack of diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers.

“US STEM fields are not a meritocracy,” says Shifrer. “The cultural biases we have around people’s identities, status characteristics like race and gender, and our cultural stereotypes about math and science and who belongs there all play a role in who gets into those fields and what succeeds in them well. Students are aware of it and are taking action to address it, the more it could really change access and representation.”

In the study, Shifrer and his colleagues sought to determine whether teachers could counteract cultural biases and help students develop a positive “math identity” — the sense that they see themselves as a “math person” or as a person who can succeed in mathematics. Specifically, they hypothesized that ninth graders who perceived their math teacher as more fair — 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 thought their math teachers were by asking them to rate their agreement with statements such as “my math teacher treats every student fairly” and “my math teacher believes that all students can be successful.” .

In their analysis, the researchers grouped students by race and gender and by the racial makeup of their school’s student body — that is, whether they attended a racially diverse school, a racially segregated school, or a school where most peers shared their race. They also tested for factors that could be alternative explanations for an apparent relationship between teachers’ perceived equity and math identity, such as prior math achievement, school type, social advantage, and teacher preparation for teaching math .

The results showed that students who perceived their math teachers as more fair had stronger math identities than those who perceived their math teachers as less fair.

“If teachers are teaching in a way that kids perceive as fair and effective, then it really makes a big difference in how students feel about math,” says Shifrer.

The researchers also found that this positive effect of equitable instruction on student attitudes toward mathematics was stronger in racially diverse schools.

“It seemed like teachers mattered more in those schools maybe because race is more prominent in those schools,” says Shifrer. “Kids look around and notice that there are differences in the race of the students and maybe think more about whether they are the type of student who is good at math. Teachers really had the space to make a difference in schools like this.”

While the relationship between teacher equity and math identity was evident across races, there was one interesting exception. Black students, in general, had strong math identities, regardless of their teacher’s actions.

“There’s some kind of resilience where these students persevere and fight against racial stereotypes,” Shifrer says. “They’re letting go of these dominant narratives and thinking, ‘I belong here; I’m good at this.’

Shifrer says similar findings have been found in other studies examining the educational attitudes of black students.

“[Black students] they are often more positive about school and what education can do for them,” he says.

A limitation of this study is that the researchers cannot say definitively that teacher behavior preceded student feelings about mathematics.

“It could be that kids who identify more with math perceive their teachers more positively,” says Shifrer. “But it stands to reason that teachers who behave more fairly will improve the way kids feel in the classroom.”

Learning about the factors that influence student identity in mathematics is important because a student’s attitude toward the subject affects the courses they take as well as their future career choices. This study suggests that teachers may have a greater role to play in helping students develop a positive mathematical identity than previously recognized.

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