• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 13th January, 2011

Math class is tough; wanna have a pizza party?

In 1992, Mattel Toys put a talking Barbie doll on the market. Each doll was randomly programmed to speak four lines from a production line repertoire of 270 and one of them was “Math class is tough”. Mattel might have thought that Barbie was simply expressing the feelings of most school-age girls, but parents and teachers, represented for example by the American Association of University Women, complained. "Will we ever have enough clothes?", "I love shopping!" and "Wanna have a pizza party?" stayed. But “Math class is tough” was removed. ” [See: New York Times: Mattel Says It Erred; Teen Talk Barbie Turns Silent on Math.]Mattel had inadvertently walked into an argument about how and why schools short-changed girls. US girls tend to do better in school than boys, but math and science have traditionally been their Achilles heels. The reason for this gap isn’t clear, but the problem has been evident for a long time, and the suggested solutions – beyond changing Barbie’s computer chip – have been plentiful. In 2003, for example, the Girl Scouts of the USA launched Girls Go Tech – It’s Her Future, Do the Math a print, broadcast and Internet campaign encouraging parents to encourage their daughters’ interest in math, science and technology. Perhaps efforts like Girls Go Tech have helped, because studies are now producing encouraging evidence. American girls in general are now taking as many math courses as boys in high school, for example. A group of US researchers, led by Robert Crosnoe of the University of Texas, decided to delve further into this subject to learn more about the influences on girls’ success in math and how such influences might differ from those affecting boys.The research team looked at data from a nationally representative group of 6,457 9th to 11th graders (aged 13–19). They were specifically interested in how many math classes students took and how well they did over a two-year period. Also of interest was whether the adolescents were influenced by their peers in their choices and performance.Their findings suggest that amount of math classes both girls and boys take is influenced by the achievement of their close friends and, to a lesser extent, their course mates (students who take the same types of courses as they do). And higher achieving students tend to be more influenced by their friends’ achievement than are students who struggle in school. Both of these patterns were somewhat more consistent among girls than among boys. Some basic questions need to be answered before educators can use these findings in their work with students. As Crosnoe and company point out, it remains unclear exactly how kids are influenced by their peers’ achievement. Once we know that, we might know how to engineer pro-math cultures within peer groups and further reduce the gap between girls like Barbie and the boys in their math and science classes.• Summary of “Peer Group Contexts of Girls’ and Boys’ Academic Experiences” by Robert Crosnoe, Catherine Riegle-Crumb, Sam Field, Kenneth Frank, and Chandra Muller in Child Development, January 2008, Vol. 79 Issue 1, pp139-155.

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