Teacher Gender Affects Student Learning?

According to a recent study led by Swarthmore professor Thomas Dee, having a teacher of the opposite sex hurts students’ academic performance.

Using data collected from 25,000 8th graders who took part in the National Education Longitudinal Survey (NELS), Dee and a team of researchers from Stanford University claim that students performed about 4 percent better on tests when their teachers were of the same sex.

In addition to test performance, the study also looked at the perceptions of teachers and students. The study found that female teachers are much more likely to see boys as disruptive. Also, girls are considerably more likely to repot that they did not look forward to a subject, that it was not useful for their future, and that they were afraid to ask questions.

Given the predominance of female teachers in middle school –more than 90 percent of the nation’s middle-school reading teachers are female, as well as more than 70 percent of math and science teachers—these findings may provide important insights into our school reform initiatives.

Although it is tempting to draw hasty conclusions about sex, gender and schooling based on the news reports, it is important that we not read too much into these findings based on media reports. Instead, we should pay careful attention to how the study was conducted and analyzed on the school, classroom, and individual outcome levels. A few quick thoughts before reading the study:

In order to completely understand the findings, we must see if the study controlled for school type. Specifically, issues of urbanicity, school size and grade distribution are critical factors. Why? Because urban schools tend to recruit and retain particular types of teachers. Also, 8th graders in a K-8 school may be dramatically different than those in a 6-8 or 7-9 school.

On the classroom level, it is important to consider student characteristics. It is possible, for example, that certain teachers receive higher concentrations of boys and/or disruptive students. This could be more of an explanatory factor than gender per se. Also, the study shows considerable variance across subject areas. This is a classic black box issue that reiterates our lack of understanding of what is occurring inside of classrooms.

Additionally, it is important to consider the direction of causality on the level of individual outcomes. Do low achieving students blame their performance on non-responsive curricula and teacher indifference or vice versa?

Lastly, the study was conducted using NELS data, which was collected in 1988. As such, we don’t have a sense of how this may have been different for today’s eighth grader, who was not even born when the data was collected.

If the study’s findings bear out, it is important that we not consider reactionary policy initiatives like same sex schooling, which has already been offered in the popular media as a possible response to the study. Since there aren’t enough male teachers in the field to fill an all-boy school, many male students would still end up with female teachers, particularly in urban schools. Furthermore, the recruitment of male teachers for the sole purpose of educating all-male schools would produce a less qualified and engaged teaching force, which is even more detrimental to students than having a teacher of the opposite sex.

Most importantly, even if the study is empirically sound, we must not concede to its “truths.” Instead, we must consider and change the ways in which schools reproduce problematic gender roles, identities, and attitudes that undermine students’ educational outcomes.

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