Math teachers demonstrate a bias toward white male students

Exploring bias in math teachers’ perception of students’ ability by gender and race/ethnicity

From Gender & Society

While theories about race, gender, and math ability among high school students have long been debated, this study found that math teachers are in fact, unjustifiably biased toward their white male students. The researchers analyzed data collected by the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) that consisted of a nationally representative group of about 15,000 students. Their data also included teacher surveys in which math teachers were asked to offer their personal assessment of individual students.  These  assessments ewith other data about the students such as were compared with their math GPA and their score on a standardized math test in order to determine if the teachers’ perceptions of their students’ abilities matched up with the students’ actual scores. They found that math teachers actually favored black female students, claiming that these students were more successful in their math classes than they actually were. Some explainations offered  for their findings were; since few black females were enrolled in high-level math courses, teachers may have viewed the black female students in their advanced courses as overcoming more to be successful in mathematics, thus illustrating more perseverance and academic potential. Additionally, they explained that teachers may be more sensitive to their own tendencies towards racial bias than gender bias as gender bias may be so socially ingrained that it is harder to notice and therefore harder to resist. The authors conclude that “The occurrence of bias in high school classrooms indicates that cultural expectations likely function to shape interactions and re-create inequality throughout the math pipeline that leads to high-status occupations in related fields of science and technology.”


This study explores whether gender stereotypes about math ability shape high school teachers’ assessments of the students with whom they interact daily, resulting in the presence of conditional bias. It builds on theories of intersectionality by exploring teachers’ perceptions of students in different gender and racial/ethnic subgroups and advances the literature on the salience of gender across contexts by considering variation across levels of math course-taking in the academic hierarchy. Analyses of nationally representative data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS) reveal that disparities in teachers’ perceptions of ability that favored white males over minority students of both genders are explained away by student achievement in the form of test scores and grades. However, we find evidence of a consistent bias against white females, which although relatively small in magnitude, suggests that teachers hold the belief that math is just easier for white males than it is for white females. In addition, we find some evidence of variation across course level contexts with regard to bias. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for research on the construction of gender inequality.

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Article details
Riegle-Crumb, C., & Humphries, M. (2012). Exploring Bias in Math Teachers’ Perceptions of Students’ Ability by Gender and Race/Ethnicity Gender & Society, 26 (2), 290-322 DOI: 10.1177/0891243211434614

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