I am very Barbie about math*

Why are High School Teachers Convinced that White Girls Can’t Do Math?: apparently, high school teachers rate white girls lower than boys when they are matched in grades and test scores. Therefore, sez the Forbes article and the study it reports on, high school math teachers are biased against white girls.

Okay, so first off, the headline and the study are absurdly biased, which is a tad ironic in an article about bias.

Using the Forbes article as a guide to the study, the study didn’t establish bias. What it established was that high school teachers consistently rate white girls a tad lower in ability than boys with the same grades and test scores. That’s not the same thing.

First off, throw out grades. I’ve written on this before, but it bears repeating: if a teacher counts homework as a significant part of the grade, the grade simply isn’t accurate. Moreover, grades skew dramatically based on population. Suburban schools with lots of high-achieving kids have a tougher grading standard than Title I schools.

I am hoping that this study focuses primarily on test scores. Let’s assume that teachers rate boys higher in ability than girls, even though they have the same test scores. Is that necessarily a sign of bias?

Hell, no. Girls do more homework than boys. Girls are, as a group, more worried about grades than boys. Girls, as a group, work harder than boys.

So suppose you have two students. One of them turns in every bit of homework, asks questions purely about methodology and algorithsm, works very hard to “get it”. The other student doesn’t do homework, asks questions about process and concept, and always grasps everything without any particular effort involved. They both get the same test scores.

Who will the teacher say is “better” at math?

That’s not bias. That’s a totally rational inference about the ease of understanding, grasp of concept, and underlying aptitude.

I have a good number of students who are entirely obsessed with grades and utterly uninterested in math. Most, but not all, of these students are girls. I have a large number of students who are fascinated by how math works, often praise an “interesting” question, ask all sorts of conceptual questions because they want to know how things work. Most, but not all, of these students are boys.

Spare me the sturm und drang. It’s not bias. Teachers are longing to find female students who are strong at math. They aren’t ignoring white female students with math talent. They are just less likely to confuse “slog” with “talent” than, say, your average researcher.

*I used to say that all the time, until I became a math teacher. I hate it when my cultural references start to date. (They should stay single for life. Hyuk.)

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