I’m sitting at my fake wooden desk in Mrs. Glaser’s second-grade classroom. The #2 yellow pencil has recently been sharpened and the timer is set. Begins! 60, 59, 58 …. I shout the problems in my head: “Five plus 8” “Five plus 8” “Five plus 8!” Tick… my mind is a big block of ice. I take a deep breath to try to maintain my focus. This is a crazy minute Monday morning. I work as fast as I can to answer as many math questions as possible in 60 seconds.

Raise your hand if this description sounds familiar. I thought so. Are your memories of Mad Minute positive? Mostly not. In my experience as a middle and high school mathematician, I have rarely heard any adult (including math teachers) report so many positive memories of their early experiences with mathematics in school. why?

The problem is not with timed retrieval exercises like Mad Minute. In fact, there is a great deal of research support for consistent retrieval practice and self-testing for building a mechanism with number facts. The problem is that when I was eight, math was already connected in my mind with fear, shame, and anxiety. I didn’t want “The Crazy Minute” to reveal what I thought was true: I was a crook of a good math student; I wasn’t born a “mathematics person”.

Part of the reason for the high rates of math anxiety is that mathematics in the United States is largely viewed as a talent one is born with or not born with. It is the ultimate example of Carol Dweck’s “fixed mindset”, in which athletic ability is seen as a fixed entity that cannot be improved with practice. As a result, it is widely accepted (and sometimes lauded) to define the self as “not a mathematical person” and to simply withdraw from trying to gain confidence in quantitative fluency. I’m not talking about people choosing not to study calculus. I mean, adults with a college education often turn down a 20 percent tip estimate without a calculator. As several teachers told me with a sad laugh, it wouldn’t be OK in a restaurant for you to say you weren’t really a “reader” and someone could read the menu for you.

Unfortunately, this annoyance with mathematics is widespread in the general population and women tend to report higher mathematical anxiety than men. This is true for parents and it is true for teachers. In fact, elementary school teachers have some of the highest levels of anxiety in mathematics compared to other fields of study. In a particularly contrasting study by Sian Beilock, girls in first- and second-grade classrooms with high math-anxious teachers had lower math achievement and had more stereotypical beliefs about girls’ abilities. More than 90 percent of primary school teachers are female. Thus, math anxiety greets our students as soon as they enter school.

Math anxiety is an eroding factor in the talent pipeline in STEM fields. Contrary to what might be expected, it disproportionately affects high-ability students who fall behind effective mathematical strategies based on working memory to less efficient strategies. Imagine a student who has memorized an algorithm for finding the slope of a two-point line. Under pressure, they forget about the shortcut and resort to calculating altitude and running based on the graph. Math anxiety hurts those who have the most to lose. Given our cultural stereotypes about who is naturally gifted at math, the students most likely to “choke” under stress are talented girls and students of color.