Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Mathematical Ability and Environment

There's not much empirical evidence identifying systematic biologically-based intellectual differences between girls and boys, women and men, and what evidence there is doesn't reliably rule out the possibility of environmental rather than biological differences. One of the few points that hasn't been disproved is the observation that at the highest levels of mathematical ability (I'll wager, that means better at math than you are!), men and boys outnumber women and girls.

This new paper looks at the geography of the distribution of female math whizzes and finds that they come out of a surprisingly small number of high schools. And that suggests that there is something about the pedagogy or the social environment that helps the female math whizzes discover their talent.
Link here.

"MIT economists find a new reason to think that environment, not innate ability, determines how well girls do in math class"
Ellison made this basic observation the heart of a recently finished paper showing not only that girls are a small minority of elite high school math students, but also that the prevalence of high-achieving girls in math varies from school to school. Indeed, in research conducted along with Ashley Swanson, a PhD student in the Department of Economics, Ellison found that the best female math students across the United States come from a tiny number of institutions. The majority of the girls who have been chosen to represent the United States in international mathematics competitions come from a set of about 20 high schools with elite math teams.

This extreme concentration of talent strongly indicates the crucial role that environmental factors, not just innate ability, play in shaping the accomplishments of students. “It’s significant that the top girls are coming from a very, very small subset of schools with strong math programs,” says Ellison. “That suggests most of the girls who could be doing well, aren’t doing well. The thousands and thousands of other schools in the United States must have a lot of talent, too, but it’s not coming out.”

1 comment:

Khadimir said...

My high school was one of those; about half of the Math Team were women, including all our best.