Last April Bush created the National Mathematics Advisory Panel
. Its purpose is to, "advise the President and Secretary [of Education] Spellings on the best use of scientifically based research on the teaching and learning of mathematics."
Now, you know this probably spells trouble. There do seem to be some good, qualified people on this panel. But the Vice Chair of the panel is Dr. Camilla Persson Benbow, who co-authored a series of papers in the 1980s that have been used repeatedly ever since to buttress the myth that women are inferior to men in the higher aptitude levels of science and math. Giving a controversial figure like Dr. Benbow such a prominent leadership post sends a very bad message.
The Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) is calling for her removal from this panel. Check out the details below the fold and sign the AWM's petition.
The AWM website has background information
on Dr. Benbow explaining her statistical work on gender differences in "mathematical reasoning ability" and documenting its methodological flaws and controversy. To summarize: Camilla Benbow and Julian Stanley authored a series of research papers where they examined SAT scores taken by 7th graders as part of a gifted student search program conducted by Johns Hopkins University. From this they put forth "the hypothesis that sex differences in achievement in and attitude towards mathematics result from superior male mathematical ability . . . [which] is probably an expression of a combination of both endogenous and exogenous variables." (That's an actual quote from their 1980 paper
.) Subsequent work of theirs arrives at similar conclusions, including statements that boys who score over 700 on the math SAT outnumber girls by a ratio of 13 to 1.
Benbow and Stanley's work generated much media attention. However, criticisms of their work have been many. The AWM web page summarizes them thusly:
Benbow's 14-page article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences is followed by 34 pages of commentary, mainly from psychologists, that includes critiques of methodology.(6) Eccles and Jacobs discuss Benbow and Stanley's assumptions about students' formal mathematical experiences in light of empirical studies of SAT performance and course taking.(7) Ruskai notes also that the Hopkins Center practice of sending students brochures stating that boys outperform girls on the mathematics SAT could bias results.(8)
(See the AWM background page for the numbered references.)
Other complaints have included inconsistent high-end boy/girl performance ratios observed by various groups over this same time period (calling into question how accurate such studies can be) as well as other studies indicating that any such "gender gap" is markedly smaller than Benbow's research suggests.
Is Dr. Benbow as evil as one might suspect, given her controversial work and the fact that Bush appointed her? Is she the mathematics education equivalent to intelligent design operatives trying to redefine how the public views evolution? Perhaps not. After all, her studies are purely statistical and devoid of extremist ravings.
But taking a step back, the reasons to oppose her Vice Chair position on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel become clear:
- Benbow and Stanley's heavy reliance on SAT scores flies in the face of criticism of such standardized tests being racial- and gender-biased.
- While Benbow never explicitly states that her work proves "superior male mathematical ability," her work has been held up by others who are not afraid to draw such conclusions. In this way Benbow generates valuable, seemingly impartial data for conservative writers such as Murray and Henderson in The Bell Curve.
- All this allows people to begin concluding that there's simply nothing that can be done about the fact that fewer women and minorities succeed in math and science. If they're genetically predisposed to do worse, why should we try to get more girls into math? This is a very dangerous line of thinking that is incredibly damaging to our educational system and the future of our country.
- All too often so-called experts and folks in the media will cite Benbow's work and make no mention of more recent work that either contradicts Benbow or shows that if a gender gap did exist, then it shrunk substantially over time. (A Chronicle of Higher Education study in 2005 generated data that suggests the bog/girl higher-end performance ratio in math is currently 2.8 to 1. And as late as 2000 Benbow was still citing her 13 to 1 ratio as current, despite her former co-author Stanley's findings of it being 4 to 1 three years earlier.)
Further, despite the controversy Benbow's work has generated, she's never given any sentiment that a genetic male advantage in science and math would be, you know, a bad thing if true. Given that her work has attracted so much media attention, and the fact that she's never retracted her early data or acknowledged more recent findings, Dr. Benbow seems just a weensey bit biased. For her to be helping lead such a national panel that could result in actual policy advice (direct to the ears of our dear leader) is pretty darn scary.
Cathy Kessel, President-Elect of the AWM, has written a statement of concern which she'll be reading to the National Mathematics Advisory Panel's second meeting (on Thursday, June 29) during time allotted to public comment. If you agree with her sentiments, if you fear that, once again, the Bush administration is trying to redefine math and science by appointing folks with clear biases and conservative agendas to national advisory panels, then sign the petition.