When Do Girls Give Up on Math and Science? It’s All Over Sooner Than You Think

When Do Girls Give Up on Math and Science? It’s All Over Sooner Than You Think, by Regina Paul from Policy Studies in EducationWhat about girls in math and science? I get that there’s a problem. I saw it in the enrollment statistics of the public Early College high school I co-founded. Our high school focused on engineering and architecture. Students had to say that they were interested in coming, and then they were accepted or not through some district computerized matching system that no one ever entirely understood. We had hoped for a 50–50 split between male and female students. The closest we ever got was about 75-25.

An article published recently by The Upshot, a New York Times website, offered this headline: “How Elementary School Teachers’ Biases Can Discourage Girls from Math and Science.” You should read it. Written by Claire Cain Miller, the article references statistics and studies that prove the headline. For example, Miller cites an Israeli study, conducted by Victor Lavy and Edith Sand, focused on students in sixth grade through high school, and quotes Mr. Lavy as saying “that a biasing teacher affects the work choices students make and whether to study math and science years later.”

That is entirely believable to me. However, I would like to offer some research that says it is all over even sooner than sixth grade. That is, I would offer it if I could remember where I read it 30 years ago, but I can’t. So you will have to believe me. When I am doing work with elementary school teachers on building curricula in math and science, I often say to them something like this, “By what age are a student’s attitudes set towards school subjects? In other words, if you haven’t made a subject seem intriguing or important or fun or useful or something else that is positive by that point, then you have lost that student. You have made it less likely that they will enjoy that subject as they advance in it and less likely that they will choose to take that subject whenever it becomes an elective—whether it is music or a foreign language or an upper-level math or science course.”

So what is that age? The research said that it is about seven. When students are in second grade, as it turns out, they are cementing their attitudes toward what they are studying. That has always worried me because I think there are a lot of primary teachers, for instance, who are not comfortable teaching science. What kind of science teachers do they make? Do they teach much science at all or concentrate their time on subjects they feel they know more about? In my own children’s excellent public elementary school, the classroom teachers didn’t teach any science. We had a science specialist who taught science—but so rarely in each classroom that it was not nearly enough. She might have been enthusiastic when she was there, but the kids hardly knew what science was.

When we were redoing the K–8 curriculum in Savannah some years ago, the central office math specialist and the superintendent—both of whom were great—were so persuaded by the research that I cannot now find that they agreed to include affective objectives in every marking period in the math curriculum in each grade. By affective objectives, I mean attitudes—objectives that speak directly to students’ interest in math, enjoyment of math, love of math, and appreciation of the importance and usefulness of math. They decided to work directly on math attitudes so that students would not turn off to math at an early age.

What an enlightened perspective, I always thought. We educators have traditionally spent so much time studying the outstanding Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain, published in 1956 and edited by the brilliant Benjamin Bloom, that we forget about the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook II: The Affective Domain, published in 1964 by David Krathwohl, Ben Bloom, and Bertram Masia. The affective domain work came later, but that didn’t mean it was less worthy.

So, while we are worrying about whatever biases teachers have about their students, let’s also worry about making sure that our youngest students are being taught by teachers—whether they are classroom teachers or specialists—who love their subjects, are comfortable teaching them, and can help students understand why each subject is valuable and fascinating. I hate to lose them at seven.