The long-held stereotypes that female students lag behind their male peers in math performance or that female students do not enjoy math as much as male students have largely fallen by the wayside in Oak Park and River Forest schools. Representatives of District 97, District 90 and District 200 report that very little disparity exists between the sexes in terms of math performance. 

Dr. Amy Warke, chief academic and accountability officer for the D97 Oak Park elementary schools, says that gender disparities in math have not been observed for years in the district. “Basically, we stopped cutting data by gender because there are no disparities by gender. We do continue to do spot checks, but there have not been any disparities with our local or state data in a number of years.”

Warke does note that stereotypes may still exist around how the genders feel about math and says that a large focus of the district is countering stereotypes that may exist both in race and gender by using consistent messaging that D97 programming in STEM programming is for all students.

This fall, the district is partnering with the Oak Park Public Library on a community read of “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele. Among other issues, the book explores stereotypes of race and gender in standardized testing.  Warke says the book provides insight into the threat of various stereotypes in education, and she encourages all of the community to join in reading it.

In River Forest, District 90 Director of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Alison Hawley says that the district does not have a statistical analysis of data broken down by gender, but she believes the gender breakdown in math classes is roughly equal parts male and female. “I can say that in terms of different classrooms, we do see strong representation of girls in more accelerated math — probably half or more than half in those classes.”

District 90 Math Coach Nancy Mueller says that the schools have been very intentional about improving girls’ interest in math. “We lean on Jo Boaler’s work,” she says of the Stanford University mathematics professor.  “One of the things she suggests to increase girls’ self-efficacy is eliminating timed activities. Doing so can reduce anxiety. District 90 eliminated that practice in our math programs.”

At Oak Park and River Forest High School, Julie Frey, the math division head, notes that the school has made great strides to counter gender stereotypes in math and says that in almost every performance metric, females perform as well as males in math at the school. Gender balance when hiring teachers is part of this effort.

“We are really intentional about making sure our teachers represent the demographics of the kids. With our math teachers, it is probably about 50-50 male to female, and it’s not just men teaching higher level math. Our A.P. Calc teachers are 50-50, and the class makeup in A.P. Calc is roughly 50-50 in terms of gender as well.”

She notes that while at the University of Illinois Chicago, she observed the Master’s program in math was divided almost 50-50 between male and female students, but the PhD students were predominantly male. “The gender gap does still exist at this level and in engineering and computer science.”

OPRF still has room to grow in terms of participation in some areas according to Frey. “A.P. Computer Science is almost all boys. I just hired a female computer science teacher to try to get more girls to take that class.”

She also notes that on the American Math Competition, an annual, national test for those in higher level math classes, very few students get to move on to the competitive level, and the majority of those are male.

Of that disparity, Frey says, “Obviously, I don’t think there’s any difference in intelligence between the sexes, but there could be some very small systematic bias or some stereotype that girls think math is not for them.”

SIDEBAR: Choosing math: OPRF’s math team actively recruiting young women

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