Posted by: Magistra | May 9, 2006

Girls Can’t Do Math

That was the title of someone’s presentation in class today. Naturally, her point was that this is a myth and that girls absolutely can do math. I wish there’d been more time for Q&A at the end because she made one point I want to know more about.

She referred to “studies” and “literature” that said putting girls in single sex math classes doesn’t improve performance and can even have a detrimental effect because it reinforces the stereotype that girls need to be protected (from the harsh competition of male learning). This was a pretty informal presentation (the professor encouraged us to present things that would be interesting to our fellow classmates), which is why making such a general reference was acceptable. But I really want to see these studies. I certainly know that one example does not make or break a trend, but because my personal experience was very different, I want to see what people doing formal research have found.

I went to an all-girls high school, with an all-boys high school right next door. 11th and 12th grade classes were routinely co-ed, and some 9th and 10th were as well. The exceptions were all math classes and the non-honors science classes. They kept those classes single sex, until my senior year. That year they decided to combine all the Calculus students – male and female – in one class. There were about 18 us – a dozen girls and 6 boys. I may be off by a student or two, but what I clearly remember is that girls outnumbered boys 2 to 1. You have to know that the math girls were a pretty close group by this point. They put together a special 9th grade geometry class for us, and most of us had then been in Honors Algebra II and Honors Trig/Pre-Calc together. We knew each other and trusted each other. Toss in a handful of boys and the intelligent, thoughtful, funny girls I knew disappeared. Literally, some girls did not speak for days at a time. The absolute worst incident was when a girl hesitated before going up to the board, and the second biggest jerk in the class muttered to the biggest jerk, “Girls can’t do math.” He’s sitting in an AP Calc class, where there are twice as many girls as boys (and where Highest Honors and Honors would end up going to two girls), and he can say that? At the time, I oscillated between being furious with these male pigs and frustrated with my friends who had suddenly become wilting flowers.

As I said before, I know one high school class does not a trend break. But it does make me want to see these studies because that class, more than any other experience in my educational past, made me think that single-sex education can be a very powerful experience for girls.

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