Do Girls Equal Boys in Math Ability? Psychologist Julian Stanley Says No

updated 04/19/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/19/1982 01:00AM

When they aren't explaining why Johnny can't read, educators spend a lot of time wondering why Mary can't do long division. Both conventional wisdom and research in the field have consistently indicated boys are markedly better than girls as math students; the question hasn't been whether this is true but why. Are girls born with less math ability, or are they steered away from it by a belief that women in our society need such skills only for totting up supermarket bills, not for quantum mechanics?

Last month a University of Chicago study, which showed high school boys and girls were equal at performing certain geometric proofs, indicated the difference may not exist. But Dr. Julian Stanley, an educational psychologist at Johns Hopkins University and perhaps the nation's leading expert on development of gifted math students, is not convinced.

Stanley, 63, points to his seven-year study with associate Camilla Benbow, which tested 10,000 mathematically gifted 12-year-olds. Twice as many boys as girls scored 500 or higher out of a perfect 800 on the math portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). And since October 1980, when he began a nationwide search for students under 13 who had hit 700 on the SAT for a development program, Stanley has found 124 such students. Only eight of them are girls.

Stanley is no math chauvinist. "It's regrettable that there are so few girls scoring this high," he says. "But generally boys have superior mathematical reasoning ability." One explanation, Stanley speculates, is that girls are taught that math is unfeminine.

University of Chicago professor Zalman Usiskin and doctoral candidate Sharon Senk, whose study of 1,366 geometry students showed no sex differences in ability to solve geometric proofs, suggest Stanley's figures from SAT test results are influenced by children's varying experience at home. There boys may get more exposure to basic math, from reading science fiction to programming computers. Stanley suggests girls be encouraged to pursue similar hobbies. Usiskin and Senk insist their geometry test is a purer way to evaluate natural ability because it uses less familiar concepts. Stanley counters that the Chicago study only "demonstrates that girls learn in school as well as boys, which we've known for 50 years."

Neither side in the dispute really wanted to get into it. Usiskin and Senk's interest is geometry education. Stanley has been working on his "700 before 13" program, designed to counsel "phenomenally talented youngsters." Of those he has located, the youngest is 10. Many of the children have been enrolled in rapid-acceleration summer sessions supervised by Johns Hopkins and Duke University; some have learned four years of high school math in three weeks.

Stanley coordinates early placement in college for his discoveries. He finds many parents fear accelerated schooling will harm their offspring. "They say things like, 'I want a happy child,' " Stanley observes, "as if that child would be happy in a vacuum." When they skip grades, he maintains, "these children adjust reasonably well because they're reinforced by their successes as they move along."

Stanley recalls his own early education as a stream of lessons on subjects he already knew—"a very unkind type of incarceration," he notes. Born and raised in suburban Atlanta, the only son of a building contractor and a nurse, Stanley finished high school at 15. He breezed through college in three years as a physical science major and taught high school chemistry. After an Army stint in World War II, Stanley received a Harvard doctorate in educational psychology in 1950. He taught at Harvard, Vanderbilt, George Peabody and Wisconsin before going to Hopkins in 1967.

Though some public school systems are beginning to conduct talent searches, Stanley insists the best students are often left to languish. "Most mathematically talented children are bored out of their minds," he laments. "Without special help, many of them will wither on the vine."

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