Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Barbie Dream House Effect? Elementary School Girls and Math

In 1994, a talking teen Barbie proclaimed, “Math class is tough!” and launched yet another chapter in the wars over girls and math.

There are three general areas where debate is ongoing – 1) when gender differences in math performance emerge, 2) whether there are gender differences in extreme mathematical achievement (either very high or low – the Larry Summers debacle), and 3) whether these trends have changed over time.

A new paper by Berkeley sociologist Andrew Penner sheds light on the first two issues. Studying math achievement in elementary school, he finds the following:

* There are differences in extreme achievement as early as the fall of kindergarten. Boys do better than girls at the top of the distribution (i.e. if we compare girls at the 95th percentile with boys at the 95th percentile). However, girls have an advantage at the bottom of the distribution - the bottom 40% of girls perform better than the bottom 40% of boys.

* The male advantage between high-performing girls and high-performing boys is largest among middle and upper class families. (hence, the Barbie dream house effect?)

* By the end of third grade, boys outperform girls in math not just at the top, but throughout the entire distribution. What this means is that if we look at the girls in the 5th percentile of the distribution versus boys at the 5th percentile of the distribution, boys will have higher math achievement, and this continues to be true when we compare the 95th percentile of boys with the 95th percentile of girls.

While Penner’s study is not about why these differences exist, he cites family processes as worthy of more attention for understanding differences in high achievement between girls and boys from advantaged families. He also makes the important point that any policy efforts to narrow these gaps need to address early elementary education; in the past, much attention has focused on course-taking patterns at the junior and high school levels.

Any experiences/thoughts from the parent, teacher, or personal level welcome in the comments below. Again, I’ll do a sum-up post of comments sometime later this week.

1 comment:

Dr. P. said...

The best discussion and mathematical analysis of the gender differences in math aptitude that I have seen can be found here