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Students who see their math teachers as fair do better at math, new study suggests

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    Students who believe their math teachers who treat them with fairness perform better with the subject, a new study suggests. 

    In the study, researchers from Portland State University, Loyola University Chicago and the University of North Texas sought to determine whether teachers are able to foster a positive “math identity” among students through equitable teaching.

    The researchers posited that since people from different backgrounds have varying perceptions of how one can succeed in math, racially diverse students in the U.S. may be susceptible to racial and gender stereotypes regarding who can be “good at math.”

    Portland State Sociology Associate Professor Dara Shifrer led the study, which involved analyzing data from a 2009 poll of almost 30,000 ninth graders across the United States. Shifrer, a former middle school math teacher, noted that stereotypes about math in the U.S. “really sets kids up for failure.”

    U.S. STEM spaces are not a meritocracy. The cultural biases that we have around people’s identities, status characteristics like race and gender, and our cultural stereotypes about math and science and who belongs there play a key role in who enters these fields and does well in them. The more that educators and students are aware of that and take action to counteract it, the more it could really shift access and representation.

    In their analysis, the research team was able to test their hypothesis that students who see their math teacher as more equitable would see themselves as a “math person,” or someone who can do well in math. 

    The survey, sourced from the National Center for Education Statistics, included items that highlighted how the students viewed the fairness of their math teachers. 

    The participants were grouped by their race, gender and school’s racial diversity and then tasked to rate their agreement to statements such as, “my math teacher treats every student fairly” and “my math teacher thinks all students can be successful.”

    Based on their findings, students with strong math identities were those who saw their math teachers as more equitable, while those who perceived their math teachers as less fair had weaker math identities. Such an effect is shown to be most prominent in schools with more racial diversity, likely because students noticed the differences in their schoolmates’ races. The exception was Black students, who were found to have strong math identities regardless of their teacher’s actions.

    According to Shifrer, other studies that have looked into the educational attitudes of Black students matched their findings.

    There’s some kind of resiliency where these students persist and strive against racist stereotypes. They discount these dominant narratives and think, “I belong here; I’m good at this.” [Black students] are often more positive towards school and towards what education can do for them. But there’s not been a lot of work fleshing out the details.

    Last year, a study highlighted how racial and ethnic disparities affect advanced math and science skills at an early age, with the abilities exhibited as early as kindergarten.

    The research, which came from an analysis of a national sample of around 11,000 U.S. elementary school students, found that 16% of Asian students displayed advanced math skills during kindergarten.

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