As a country, the U.S. seems to have more of a gender gap in early elementary education than in most countries, the researchers say. One hypothesis to explain the gap could be that the U.S. has first and second grade female teachers who are “math-anxious.”
“I’ve seen a surprising number of teachers who want to teach in the lower grades because they’re scared of math,” Lubienski said. “Other research has shown a link between math-anxious teachers and girls’ math performance, so that could also account for the early gender disparities that we found.”
Instead of having one teacher for all of the subjects, Robinson and Lubienski believe that having math specialists teaching in the elementary grades, and not just generalists who teach every subject, could help to close the achievement gap.
“If you have a teacher who actually likes math, rather than one who just wants to get it over with, then I think it would be helpful, especially considering that we have these early gaps and other countries don’t,” Lubienski said. “There’s some debate about whether kids need to stay with one teacher because it nurtures them. But from a math education standpoint, having dedicated math specialists is certainly worth exploring.”
For education policymakers, the professors say their research suggests that teachers need to intervene earlier when students struggle.
“We should target effective interventions for the content domains where we see gaps, and we must ensure that these interventions are in place by the grades in which we start to see gaps emerge, which our research suggests is earlier than previously thought,” Robinson said.
“We can’t just ignore the gender gap and think that it’s done,” Lubienski said. “There’s been some concern about boys being short-changed in school, and our research supports that claim for boys who have difficulty with reading.”
“But teachers might also underestimate the attention that young girls need in math,” Lubienski said. “So we need to pay attention not only to the low-achieving boys who are struggling with reading, but also to the girls – both the high-achievers as well as the low-achievers – as they learn math in the early grades.”