Is Math Class Too Tough? Or Are Schools Failing at Their Task?

The summer blockbuster Barbie, which has now grossed more than $1.4 billion worldwide and will almost certainly be the biggest movie of the year, has sparked renewed public debate about sex and gender roles and stereotypes in modern America. But this isn’t the first time the popular doll franchise has ignited such conversations.

Back in 1992, Mattel released a new Barbie doll called “Teen Talk Barbie.” The toy incorporated a voice box that was programmed to speak one of four randomly selected phrases out of a total of 270 possibilities.

The phrases included such stereotypical teen girl remarks as “Will we ever have enough clothes?” “Let’s plan our dream wedding!” “Wanna have a pizza party?” and “Want to go shopping?” (but also “I’m studying to be a doctor”). While feminists had long criticized the Barbie shape for giving girls an unrealistic body image to measure themselves against, a particular controversy arose over one of Teen Talk’s remarks: “Math class is tough!”

More than one group of educators, including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) criticized the “Math class is tough” remark as harmful to efforts to persuade more girls to study math and science, especially when it was juxtaposed with the other girlie-type utterances.

In 1993, to protest such gender stereotypes, a group of “performance artists” who called themselves the “Barbie Liberation Organization” even exchanged voice boxes between 300 Teen Talk Barbies and Hasbro Talking G.I. Joe action figures, so the unknowing purchasers of those dolls heard them utter some quite unexpected phrases. (But imagine as well how the boys who received the reprogrammed G.I. Joes must have reacted!)

The controversy even entered the mainstream to the point where it was included in a 1994 Simpsons episode, in which Lisa objects to sexist utterances by a “Malibu Stacy” doll such as, “Thinking too much gives you wrinkles.”

In response to the critics, Mattel initially offered to exchange its new dolls for nonspeaking ones on request. The company later apologized to the AAUW and withdrew the math class phrase from subsequent dolls.

Many elements of this year’s Barbie movie seem to be a similar meta-critique of the supposedly shallow and materialistic female stereotype propped up by the dolls. The film, clearly a product of committed Hollywood social-justice warriors, is obsessed with breaking down the notion that men and women are different in any way.

But it’s worth considering how this feminist impulse has played out in our society – in particular when it comes to the target audience of Barbie dolls, young girls. There is perhaps no better case study for this than the education system.

Take for instance, a report earlier this month about the removal of “math and science” from the name the “Math and Science Exploratory School,” otherwise known as MS 447, a formerly prestigious middle school for high achievers in Brooklyn’s ultra-liberal (and prosperous) Boerum Hill neighborhood.

The school, to which admission was once widely coveted, has seen its students’ math scores plummet in recent years following a decision to move from a merit-based admissions system to a lottery-based one in 2018 in the name of increasing “diversity” and “equity.” In 2022, only 69 percent of the school’s seventh-graders scored a passing grade on New York State’s standardized math tests, down from over 95 percent in 2018.

Of particular concern prior to the change was the fact that the school was attracting more boys than girls. According to the New York Post, Principal Arin Rusch contended (without offering any data or evidence) that the school’s math and science branding “caused us to have more boys than girls applying and enrolling, which is sad and wrong, but nonetheless was a pattern that we, year over year, have had trouble breaking.”

So, was the Teen Talk Barbie stereotype accurate after all? 

An alternative explanation was offered by a parent quoted by the Post whose daughter attended the school from 2018 to 2020: “They were decreasing their focus on STEM, and they were like, ‘I guess we might as well change our name now.’”

“I don’t think they have been trying to maintain that level [of academic performance],’” the parent added. “The combination of the name and how performance is going at the school… I’m not sure I would really pursue as ambitiously as I did to get my daughter into that school.”

Another parent remarked of the change, “I don’t know what makes them think that girls are turned off by the name ‘math and science.’ It seems like a sexist stereotype to me.”

It would appear that, in the pursuit of what they view as diversity, today’s self-styled liberals have sometimes ended up reinforcing the very stereotypes they once denounced. Not only does this send a terrible message to students that their immutable characteristics like sex and race matter more than merit, it also does a disservice to the girls who would have benefitted from attending MS 447 before its curriculum and admissions practices were watered down in the name of “equity.”

The claim that American girls in general lack the capacity for success in traditional academic subjects, doubtless including math and science, is belied by the fact that women now account for some 60 per cent of college freshmen, as reported by psychoanalyst Erica Komisar in a September 13 Wall Street Journal column, “School Is a Hostile Environment for Boys.” She attributes the figure as a consequence not only of the opening of career opportunities for women, but also to a teaching approach in elementary and high schools that is often more favorable to girls’ tastes and behavioral attributes than those of boys.

How to overcome what Komisar describes as a crisis for boys (not girls) is a subject for another day. But for kids of both sexes, the excuse and potential remedy offered by the MS 447 principal for academic underperformance exemplifies how the ostensible focus on diversity is weakening educational achievement and hence young people’s potential for success in life.

Those who denounced the Teen Talk Barbie stereotype and have subsequently celebrated the supposedly barrier-breaking message of this year’s Barbie film should be up in arms over the fact that a once-successful school is now effectively lowering its standards out of fear of alienating young women. All our children, girls and boys, black and white, deserve better.

David Lewis Schaefer is a Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at College of the Holy Cross.

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