• by Keiko Suda, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • March 1999

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act established eight National Education Goals, including: “By the year 2000, the United States will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement” (1994). In part, this goal aims to increase degree completion for women and minorities. Such a high standard for excellence cannot be achieved if equity is not part of the equation. The two ideas are inextricably linked.

“Equity without excellence would be a terrible waste of talent. Excellence without equity is a contradiction in terms,” comments Maggie Ford, President of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation (1998).

Research Documents Tentative Narrowing of the Gender Gap

As the year 2000 draws near, it is useful to revisit the research on the well-documented and highly-discussed gender gap in math and science to assess our progress toward the goal established in the Educate America Act.

A report published by the AAUW Educational Foundation in 1992 brought the gender gap in math and science to national attention. It revealed a significant gap in course enrollment at the secondary level, in addition to prevalent bias against girls (particularly minority girls) in curriculum materials and classroom instruction.

Since then, numerous studies confirmed these findings, including research conducted by David and Myra Sadker and documented in their book, Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls. The Sadkers described the many inequities suffered by girls and boys in schools, including lack of interaction between teachers and girls in the classroom, plummeting self-esteem in teenage girls, gender barriers to higher education, and the miseducation of boys (1994).

Recent data reveals that the hard work of many educators has begun to pay off. A 1998 study published by the AAUW Educational Foundation entitled Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children provides an updated picture of equity in schools. According to the updated study, the gender gap in math and science appears to be narrowing for certain indicators. The good news is that the actual number of courses taken by boys and girls is virtually equal in mathematics, and the gap has closed considerably in science.

In spite of these findings, challenges remain, as gender differences are still prevalent in the kinds of math and science courses taken. Predictably, the higher level math and science courses continue to be dominated by boys. The gender gap is particularly marked in physics, where girls’ enrollment is significantly lower than boys’.

A shortfall of the study is that it does not disaggregate the data by race, so we have no idea what kind of “girls” are represented by the data. Assuming that the historical trend still holds true, it is likely that girls of color continue to lag behind males at greater rates than White girls.

By not analyzing the data by race, this aspect of the gender gap remains hidden (an intra-gender gap), creating the illusion that the gender gap is narrowing across the board. This leaves girls and women of color to fend for themselves, lacking any resources that might have been allocated had the research clearly and accurately depicted the problem. Research that fully disaggregates and analyzes data by various factors will be crucial in obtaining a complete picture and creating appropriate solutions.

Importance of Mathematics and Science

While educators and education advocates spend great amounts of time and resources lamenting the gender gap in math and science education, the reason for this concern is often left out of the context of the discussion. So what if girls do not get as much math and science education as boys? The “so what” of this is rooted in research and documentation directly linking math and science to enrollment in college and therefore to economic well-being in adulthood.

For example, research shows that taking Algebra I and geometry early in high school – generally in the ninth and 10th grades – is the major predictor of a student’s progression to college (Kane and Pelavin, 1990).

With this in mind, it is particularly encouraging to find that more girls entered Algebra I, Algebra II, geometry, pre-calculus, trigonometry and calculus in 1994 than in 1990. As science and technology fields continue to expand, a strong math and science foundation established early in the educational career is essential to ensuring that girls – particularly minority girls – are “plugged in” to the information age, not “logged out.”

Useful Strategies

A variety of stakeholders in schools have a responsibility to ensure equitable outcomes for all students in math and science education. Parents, teachers and administrators need to work collaboratively to provide a framework for success in math and science free from the cracks that habitually plague schools and consume many students. The Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) is dedicated to ensuring equitable education for all students. It offers information and training in the priority area of gender equity based on 25 years of experience working for educational equity.

The following strategies for administrators, teachers and parents have been adapted from publications of the Women’s Educational Equity Act Program (1990) in collaboration with the University of Nevada and the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (1996).

Strategies for Teachers

  • Develop skills for working with parents. Welcome parents and encourage them to become involved in their children’s education. Communicate consistently with them.
  • Compensate for or replace biased materials in the classroom with anti-bias curriculum and resources.
  • Serve on textbook adoption committees and participate in other activities to ensure the selection of nonbiased curriculum materials and resources.
  • Select visuals for the classroom that reflect the contribution of women (particularly women of color) in math, science and technology.
  • Never segregate students by gender or race in lines, study groups or other activities.
  • Use role models of both sexes and different ethnicities as visiting resource people to the classroom.
  • Publicly and privately acknowledge students’ academic and intellectual accomplishments (not their efforts).
  • Make sure that girls get enough practice to be confident with their math skills.
  • Use slates or individual dry erase boards to encourage low pressure and spontaneous answers.
  • Incorporate math problems that call for many approaches with several right answers.
  • Provide opportunities for estimating, guessing and checking.
  • Recognize students’ math achievement, especially improvement. Create a “math star” bulletin board.
  • Help girls recognize that it is okay to acknowledge their own mathematical ability without feeling embarrassed or conceited.
  • Create opportunities for cooperative learning and minimize overt competition between classmates.
  • Practice math skills on computers.
  • Use girls as peer tutors in math.

Strategies for Administrators

  • Assess equity practices in counseling for math and science course enrollment and careers. Take any necessary corrective action such as equity training.
  • Be responsive to concerns of parents, teachers and students about perceived inequities or bias in curriculum materials, programs or instruction.
  • Arrange programs, activities and meetings involving parents around their work, day care and transportation in order to facilitate their full participation in the education of their children.
  • Have staff in-service sessions that focus on equitable instructional and counseling practices.
  • Encourage schoolwide participation in commemorative days that are inclusive and representative of women, especially women of color, in non-traditional pursuits.

Strategies for Parents

  • Do not set up negative expectations for a child with phrases such as, “She’ll probably have trouble in math – I always did,” or “Watch out for him – you know how boys are when they get mad.”
  • Review textbooks and other materials for bias. Bring all related concerns to the attention of teachers and administrators.
  • Participate in the textbook selection and review process.
  • Ask children open-ended questions about school, encourage them to talk about their dreams and really listen to their responses.
  • Encourage children that they can be or do anything they dream of. Talk about future math and science courses and careers with daughters as well as sons. If you do not know what some of the options may be, find out together.
  • Recognize children’s successes and achievements, especially those of daughters in math and science classes. Encourage them as they strive for excellence.
  • Monitor homework for proper format, thoroughness, completion and timeliness.
  • Ensure that children arrive at school physically and mentally healthy and ready to learn.
  • Meet and ask questions of all of your child’s teachers. Ask for regular progress reports as often as you wish (weekly, monthly).

According to the National Institute for Science Education (Kahle, 1998), efforts to ensure equitable outcomes in mathematics and science education should be driven by the need for the United States to remain economically, scientifically and technologically competitive with other developed nations. If the inherent unfairness and injustice of race and gender discrimination is not enough to mobilize financial and human resources, I suppose a threat to the economic and technological status of the nation should do the trick.


American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation. Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children (Washington, D.C.: AAUW Educational Foundation, 1998).

American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation. How Schools Shortchange Girls: The AAUW Report, A Study of Major Findings on Girls and Education (Washington, D.C.: AAUW Educational Foundation, 1992).

Goals 2000: Educate America Act, Title I, Section 102 (March 1994).

Kahle, J.B. “Measuring Progress Toward Equity in Science and Mathematics Education,” NISE (National Institute for Science Education) BRIEF (Madison: University of Wisconsin at Madison, August 1998) Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 2-3.

Kane, M. and S. Pelavin. Changing the Odds: Factors Increasing Access to College (New York: The College Board, 1990).

Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. The Fourth R: Responsibility, Ensuring Educational Excellence Through Equity and Effective School Practices (Portland, Oregon: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1996)

Penny-Velázquez, M. “Creating Gender Equitable Early Childhood Environments: A Look at What’s So – The Status of Education,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1995).

Revilla, A.T. “‘Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice’ Gender Inequities in Mathematics,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 1998).

Sadker, M. and D. Sadker. Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls (New York, N.Y.: Touchstone, 1994).

Solís, A. “Achieving Gender Equity in Multicultural Bilingual Education: A Review of ESL: The Whole Person Approach,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 1997).

Women’s Educational Equity Act (WEEA) Program and the University of Nevada. Add-Ventures for Girls: Building Math Confidence, Junior High Teacher’s Guide (Newton, Mass.: WEEA Publishing Center, 1990).

Keiko Suda is an education assistant in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 1999 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]