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Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement

Edited* by Edward E. Smith, Columbia University, New York, NY, and approved December 17, 2009 (received for review September 23, 2009)
Abstract
People’s fear and anxiety about doing math—over and above actual math ability—can be an impediment to their math achievement. We show that when the mathanxious individuals are female elementary school teachers, their math anxiety carries negative consequences for the math achievement of their female students. Early elementary school teachers in the United States are almost exclusively female (>90%), and we provide evidence that these female teachers’ anxieties relate to girls’ math achievement via girls’ beliefs about who is good at math. First and secondgrade female teachers completed measures of math anxiety. The math achievement of the students in these teachers’ classrooms was also assessed. There was no relation between a teacher’s math anxiety and her students’ math achievement at the beginning of the school year. By the school year’s end, however, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading” and the lower these girls’ math achievement. Indeed, by the end of the school year, girls who endorsed this stereotype had significantly worse math achievement than girls who did not and than boys overall. In early elementary school, where the teachers are almost all female, teachers’ math anxiety carries consequences for girls’ math achievement by influencing girls’ beliefs about who is good at math.
At most US colleges and universities, the mathematics requirements for students majoring in elementary education are minimal (1). As a result, students can successfully pursue a career as an elementary school teacher even if they have a propensity to avoid math. Interestingly, elementary education majors are largely female and have the highest levels of math anxiety of any college major (2). Math anxiety manifests itself as an unpleasant emotional response to math or the prospect of doing math and is more common in women than in men (2). Because of these negative reactions, people high in math anxiety tend to stay away from math courses and mathrelated career paths ^{†} (3 –5).
Not only do mathanxious people avoid math but they also perform more poorly than their abilities would suggest when they are exposed to math. This is because math anxiety is not simply a proxy for poor math ability. Rather, the fears that mathanxious individuals experience when they are called on to do math—whether it is working through a problem at the chalk board as an entire class looks on, taking a math test, or even calculating a restaurant bill—prevent them from using the math knowledge they possess to show what they know (3). When worries and selfdoubt occur, thinking and reasoning can be compromised (6).
Math anxiety has been recognized as an impediment to math achievement (7). Yet, fears and anxiety about math may have more widespread consequences than merely having an impact on the achievement of mathanxious individuals themselves. If people who are anxious about math are charged with teaching others mathematics—as is often the case for elementary school teachers—teachers’ anxieties could have consequences for their students’ math achievement.
Even more striking is that any relation that may exist between teacher anxiety and student achievement might not be uniform across all students and their teachers. Children are more likely to emulate the behavior and attitudes of samegender vs. oppositegender adults (8, 9). Because early elementary school teachers in the United States are almost exclusively female (>90%; 91% across elementary school and even higher at early elementary levels) (10) and gender is a highly salient feature to children at the early elementary school age (11), girls may be more likely than boys to notice their teacher’s negativities and fears about math. This, in turn, may have a negative impact on girls’ math achievement.
The research reported here assessed the math anxiety of 17 first and secondgrade female teachers from a large midwestern urban school district. The math achievement of the students (52 boys and 65 girls) in these teachers’ classrooms, along with students’ beliefs about gender and academic success in domains like math, was also assessed.
Our first hypothesis was that the more math anxiety a female teacher had, the lower her students’ math achievement would be. Our second hypothesis was that this relation would only hold for girls. Finally, our third hypothesis was that any relation between female teachers’ math anxiety and girls’ math achievement that did exist could be accounted for by whether girls in these teachers’ classrooms believed in traditional academic gender stereotypes (i.e., boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading).
To test these hypotheses, we assessed students’ math achievement in the first 3 months of the school year and again in the last 2 months of the year. We predicted that if female teachers are influencing their students, a relation between teacher anxiety and student achievement should be evident at the end of the school year but not at the beginning of the year when children’s classroom exposure to their teachers is minimal. To test our third hypothesis regarding how female teachers’ anxieties might affect girls’ math achievement, we asked students to perform a task that gauged the extent to which they adhered to traditional gender stereotypes that boys are good at math and girls are good at reading. At both the beginning and end of the school year, students were told two genderneutral stories, one about a student who was good at math and one about a student who was good at reading, and were asked to draw these students (12). We were interested in the genders of the drawings that children produced for each story. From these drawings, we formed a measure of students’ gender ability beliefs by assigning drawings of boys a score of 1 and drawings of girls a score of 0 and subtracting the reading from the math drawing score (math drawing − reading drawing). The higher the score, the more children ascribed to traditional (or stereotypical) gender roles in school.
Results
As expected, at the beginning of the school year, there was no significant relation between teachers’ math anxiety and students’ math achievement (girls: r = −0.13, P = 0.31; boys: r = 0.12, P = 0.40). However, by the end of the school year, the higher a teacher’s math anxiety, the lower was the girls’ (r = −0.28, P = 0.022) but not the boys’ (r = −0.04, P = 0.81) math achievement. ^{‡}
Why might female teachers’ math anxiety relate to girls’ math achievement? Gender is an individuating feature that early elementary schoolaged children notice (11, 13). Moreover, children at this age are aware of commonly held beliefs about gender and ability (12, 14) and are most likely to embrace behaviors and attitudes that they think are genderappropriate (9). One possibility is that female teachers’ math anxiety helps to confirm stereotypes about which gender is good at math and this, in turn, has an impact on girls’ math achievement. If so, teachers’ math anxiety should relate to the beliefs that girls hold about which gender is good at math.
As with math achievement, there was no significant relation between teachers’ math anxiety and the gender ability beliefs of boys (r = −0.04, P = 0.80) or girls (r = 0.20, P = 0.10) ^{§} at the beginning of the school year, before teachers had spent a significant amount of time with their students. This was true for boys at the end of the school year as well (r = 0.09, P = 0.52). In contrast, for girls, by the end of the school year, the higher a teacher’s math anxiety, the more likely girls’ ability beliefs were to fall along traditional gender lines (r = 0.28, P = 0.022). ^{‖} In addition, the more girls at the end of the year endorsed the notion that boys are good at math and girls are good at reading, the lower was their math achievement (r = −0.28, P = 0.025).
Female teachers’ math anxiety negatively relates to girls’ math achievement and also to girls’ gender ability beliefs at the end of the school year. If this link between teacher anxiety and student math achievement occurs because teachers influence girls’ gender ability beliefs and this, in turn, has an impact on girls’ math performance, the relation between teacher and student should be mediated (or accounted for) by girls’ gender ability beliefs.
As seen in Fig. 1, the relation between teacher math anxiety and girls’ math achievement at the end of the school year became nonsignificant when girls’ gender ability beliefs at the end of the year were also used to predict student math achievement. Only a strong negative relation between girls’ gender ability beliefs and their math achievement remained. This relation did not hold for boys.
By the school year’s end, female teachers’ math anxiety negatively relates to girls’ math achievement, and this relation is mediated by girls’ gender ability beliefs. We speculate that having a highly mathanxious female teacher pushes girls to confirm the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at math, which, in turn, affects girls’ math achievement. If so, it follows that girls who confirm traditional gender ability beliefs at the end of the school year (i.e., draw boys as good at math and girls as good at reading) should have lower math achievement than girls who do not and than boys more generally. This is exactly what we found. As seen in Fig. 2, students’ math achievement at the end of the year depended on their gender and whether they confirmed common gender ability beliefs [a student gender × gender ability belief interaction; F(1,113) = 3.79, P = 0.05].
Girls who confirmed traditional gender ability beliefs had significantly lower endofyear math achievement [mean (M) = 102.5, SE = 2.41] than girls who did not [M = 107.84, SE = 1.61; 95% confidence interval (CI): 104.66–111.03; Cohen’s d = 0.66]. Moreover, girls who confirmed traditional gender ability beliefs had significantly lower math achievement than boys overall at the end of the year as well (M = 107.69, SE = 1.62; 95% CI: 104.49–110.90; d = 0.37). Boys’ endofyear math achievement did not differ as a function of gender ability beliefs (Don’t Confirm: M = 106.14, SE = 1.80; Confirm: M = 109.25, SE = 2.69; 95% CI: 103.92–114.58).
Importantly, these differences were not seen at the beginning of the school year; at that point, teachers presumably had not had ample time to influence gender ability beliefs or relations between gender ability beliefs and math achievement. Indeed, in terms of the four groups displayed in Fig. 2, there were no significant differences in math achievement at the beginning of the school year [no gender × gender ability belief interaction; F(1,113) = 2.11, P = 0.15; girls: Don’t Confirm: M = 101.44, SE = 1.86; Confirm: M = 99.0, SE = 2.74; boys: Don’t Confirm: M = 98.83, SE = 2.04; Confirm: M = 103.56, SE = 3.06]. In concert with the mediation analysis above, these data suggest that girls’ math achievement is, at least in part, related to their confirmation of traditional academic gender beliefs—beliefs that are affected by the math anxiety levels of their female teachers.
Discussion
Using a mediation analysis that depicts a model of a causal chain of events, we showed that female students’ math achievement at the end of the school year is negatively affected by the way in which their teachers’ math anxieties alter these girls’ gender ability beliefs.
Similar to previous work (15), we did not find gender differences in math achievement at either the beginning [t(115) = 0.18, P = 0.86] or end [t(115) = 0.44, P = 0.66] of the school year. However, as Fig. 2 clearly shows, by the school year’s end, girls who confirmed traditional gender ability roles performed worse than girls who did not and worse than boys more generally. We show that these differences are related to the anxiety these girls’ teachers have about math.
If it is simply the case that highly mathanxious teachers are worse math teachers, one would expect to see a relation between teacher anxiety and the math achievement of both boys and girls. Instead, teachers with high math anxiety seem to be specifically affecting girls’ math achievement—and doing so by influencing girls’ genderrelated beliefs about who is good at math.
This study explores the relation between female teachers’ math anxieties and their students’ math achievement. Thus, it is an open question as to whether there would be a relation between teacher math anxiety and student math achievement if we had focused on male instead of female teachers. In one sense, the lack of male elementary school teachers in the United States makes this a hard question to answer. Yet, it is an important question, given research suggesting that girls are more socially sensitive than boys in early elementary school (16). Thus, it is possible that even with male teachers, a relation between teacher anxiety and female student achievement might occur. Nevertheless, the literature on math anxiety, gender modeling, and the impact of negative stereotypes on achievement lead us to speculate that any relation between male teacher anxiety and girls’ math achievement would be obtained through a different route than the one proposed here. Moreover, in the current work, the relation between female teachers’ math anxieties and girls’ math achievement was mediated (or accounted for) by girls’ beliefs that boys are better at math. Hence, it seems unlikely that a male teacher’s math anxiety would affect girls’ math achievement by pushing girls to confirm that boys are good at math.
In addition, children do not blindly imitate adults of the same gender. Instead, they model behaviors they believe to be gendertypical and appropriate (9). Thus, it may be that first and secondgrade girls are more likely to be influenced by their teachers’ anxieties than their male classmates, because most early elementary school teachers are female and the high levels of math anxiety in this teacher population confirm a societal stereotype about girls’ math ability (2). This match between teacher math anxiety and societal norms would not hold for male teachers exhibiting math anxiety. However, if such a correspondence is important in influencing student achievement, we would expect that for school subjects for which girls are stereotyped to excel (e.g., language arts), male teachers’ anxieties would have an impact on male more than female students’ achievement.
It is important to note that the effects reported in the current work, although significant, are small. There are likely many influences on girls’ math achievement and gender ability beliefs over and above their current teachers’ anxieties. For instance, previous teachers, parents, peers, and siblings who either do or do not model traditional academic gender roles may play an important part in shaping girls’ gender ability beliefs and their math achievement more generally. Exploring these relationships—in addition to the influence of both male and female teachers—will help to elucidate the full range of social influences on student achievement.
In conclusion, we show that female teachers’ math anxiety has consequences for the math achievement of girls in early elementary school grades. Given that this relation is mediated by girls’ gender ability beliefs, we speculate that female teachers model commonly held gender stereotypes to their female students through their math anxieties. These findings open a window into gender differences in math achievement and attitudes that emerge over the course of schooling.
Interestingly, math anxiety can be reduced through math training and education (17 –19). This suggests that the minimal mathematics requirements for obtaining an elementary education degree at most US universities need to be rethought. If the next generation of teachers—especially elementary school teachers—is going to teach their students effectively, more care needs to be taken to develop both strong math skills and positive math attitudes in these educators.
Methods
Teachers.
Seventeen female first and secondgrade teachers (12 firstgrade teachers and 5 secondgrade teachers) from five public elementary schools in a large midwestern school district participated in this study. The teachers had an average of 13 years of teaching experience (SD = 9.20).
Teachers’ math anxiety and math knowledge were assessed during the last 2 months of the school year. Math anxiety was assessed using the short Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale (sMARS) (20), which is a 25item version of the widely used 98item MARS (21). Teachers responded to questions about how anxious different situations would make them feel (e.g., “reading a cash register receipt after you buy something,” “studying for a math test”). Responses were recorded on a Likert scale from 1 (low anxiety) to 5 (high anxiety). All analyses were performed on the average of the 25 items.
Teachers’ math knowledge was assessed using the Elementary Number Concepts and Operations subtest of the Content Knowledge for Teaching Mathematics measure (22). This task measures teachers’ facility in using mathematics knowledge for classroom teaching, including the ability to explain mathematical rules, assess the validity of unusual algorithms produced by students, and illustrate mathematical equations using diagrams or word problems. The content areas included addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division with whole numbers and fractions. The task consisted of 26 multiplechoice questions. Items that were left blank were considered incorrect. All analyses were performed on raw scores (the number of items correct of a total of 26).
Students.
A total of 117 students (65 girls and 52 boys) participated. The number of girls and boys was fairly evenly distributed across the two grades (girls: 40 first graders and 25 second graders; boys: 38 first graders and 14 second graders) and including grade as a factor did not alter the significance of the mediation analyses reported above in any way.
Students’ math achievement and gender ability beliefs were assessed during the first 3 and last 2 months of the school year. Math achievement was measured using the Applied Problems subtest of the Woodcock–Johnson III Tests of Achievement (23). The Applied Problems subtest consists of orally presented word problems involving arithmetic calculations of increasing difficulty. Students were assessed at school during a oneonone session with an experimenter. A different version of the Woodcock–Johnson tests was used for each assessment. Testing continued until basal (six items correct in a row) and ceiling (six items incorrect in a row) levels were established. All analyses within gender were performed on students’ W scores, a transformation of the students’ raw score into a Raschscaled score with equal intervals (a score of 500 is the approximate average performance of a 10yearold) (24, 25). Because of its properties as an interval scale with a constant metric, the W score is recommended for use in studies of individual growth (26, 27). All betweengender analyses were performed on students’ raw scores standardized as a function of their age (a score of 100 means that a student is at the average achievement level for his or her age). This was done to account for a marginally significant difference in age as a function of gender [F(1,115) = 3.47, P = 0.065].
Student’s’ gender ability beliefs were assessed after the math achievement task. Children were read two genderneutral stories, one about a student who is really good at math and another about a student who is really good at reading. After each story, children were asked to draw a picture of the student in the story and were then asked whether the student they drew was a boy or a girl. The order of the math and reading stories was counterbalanced across students within classrooms.
The combined measure of gender ability beliefs was formed by assigning a score of 1 to drawings of a boy and a score of 0 to drawings of a girl, and then subtracting the reading drawing score from the math drawing score (math drawing − reading drawing). Thus, a score of 1 indicates that a child drew a boy as being good at math and a girl as being good at reading, a score of 0 indicates that a child drew the same gender for each story, and a score of −1 indicates that a child drew a girl as being good at math and a boy as being good at reading. In other words, the higher the gender ability belief score, the more children ascribed to the traditional gender belief that boys are good at math and girls are good at reading (see SI Methods for more details).
Acknowledgments
This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Spatial Intelligence Learning Center grant (to S.L.B. and S.C.L.) and by National Science Foundation Grants BCS0751336 and CAREER DRL0746970 (to S.L.B.).
Footnotes
 ^{1}To whom correspondence should be addressed at: Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, 5848 South University Avenue, Chicago, IL 60607. Email: beilock{at}uchicago.edu.

Author contributions: S.L.B., E.A.G., G.R., and S.C.L. designed research; E.A.G. and G.R. performed research; S.L.B. and E.A.G. analyzed data; and S.L.B., E.A.G., G.R., and S.C.L. wrote the paper.

↵*This Direct Submission article had a prearranged editor.

↵ ^{†}Indeed, a 2000 survey of kindergarten through secondgrade teachers in the United States revealed that while almost all teachers (93%) had taken college courses in mathematics education, far fewer had completed more advanced math courses such as probability and statistics (33%), geometry for elementary/middle school teachers (19%), and calculus (13%) (1).

↵ ^{‡}Controlling for teachers’ math knowledge did not alter these results (see SI Methods for more detail).

↵ ^{§}One might notice that this relation approached significance. Because it is unlikely that students are deliberately assigned to classrooms based on the teacher’s math anxiety, this relation likely occurred by chance. Nonetheless, to ensure that it was not influencing our endofyear findings, we ran an alternate version of our mediation model controlling for girls’ beginningofyear gender ability beliefs. Girls’ endofyear beliefs significantly continued to mediate (or account for) the relation between teachers’ math anxiety and girls’ endofyear math achievement (95% CI: −2.84 to −0.061; P < 0.05). In contrast, girls’ beginningofyear gender ability beliefs were not a significant predictor (β = −0.02, t = −0.17, P = 0.862), suggesting that this factor was not driving our endofyear mediation effects.

↵ ^{‖}When controlling for beginningofyear gender ability beliefs, the correlation between teachers’ math anxiety and girls’ endofyear gender ability beliefs remained significant (r = 0.31, P = 0.012).

↵ ^{‖}When teachers’ math anxiety was in the equation, their math knowledge was controlled, and when girls’ endofyear math achievement was in the equation, their beginningofyear math achievement was controlled.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/0910967107/DCSupplemental.
Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.
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