Teaching gender

A new study suggests boys learn better from men and girls learn better from women. Not surprisingly, some disagree.

Published August 28, 2006 7:20PM (EDT)

Here we go. Swarthmore economics professor Thomas Dee has done a study on how teacher gender impacts students' learning, and his research indicates that boys learn better from male teachers and girls learn better from female teachers. According to the Associated Press, "Dee found that having a female teacher instead of a male teacher raised the achievement of girls and lowered that of boys in science, social studies and English. Looked at the other way, when a man led the class, boys did better and girls did worse."

Dee also found that that gender influences the way teachers perceive students and students perceive their studies. "With a female teacher," the AP reports, "boys were more likely to be seen as disruptive. Girls were less likely to be considered inattentive or disorderly. In a class taught by a man, girls were more likely to say the subject was not useful for their future. They were less likely to look forward to the class or to ask questions."

The study is based on a 1988 survey of 25,000 eighth graders conducted by the Department of Education. Dee told the AP that though the data are dated, the national survey offers the best information available because middle school comprises the years in which "gender gaps emerge."

Not surprisingly, Dee's study has proved contentious even before its publication, though the research was peer reviewed and approved. National Education Association president Reg Weaver suggested that factors like good textbooks, small class size and teacher experience are more relevant to student performance than teacher gender. (The results aren't available online yet, so it's hard to know whether Dee controlled for factors like these.) National Women's Law Center co-president Marcia Greenberger told the AP that "the data, as he presents them, are far from convincing."

Complicating matters somewhat, Dee's study is being published today in Education Next, a journal put out by the conservative Hoover Institution. (The journal is officially nonpartisan, but took some flak earlier this year for an article knocking the Center on Education Policy's criticisms of No Child Left Behind, allegedly without consulting the CEP for the story.)

Of course, there are probably almost as many counterexamples to Dee's findings as there are students in school; as Greenberger noted, "I don't think there are many parents or students, looking back over their educational careers, who haven't been inspired by a teacher of the opposite sex." But the study coincides with cresting national interest in the so-called boy crisis in schools, and comes at a time when around 80 percent of public-school teachers are female. Dee cautioned that he's not recommending any immediate policy changes based on his research, and expressed hope for more research on how and why gender influences learning. There's definitely something chicken-or-egg about his findings; if students do prefer to learn from a teacher of their own gender, that preference may or may not be innate. Still, some may find it tempting to treat his study as a prescription for systemic changes. Look for a renewed interest in single-sex education (at least in some circles) and a call for wage hikes and other strategies for luring men into teaching (which, whether or not one finds Dee's conclusions persuasive, sound like great ideas anyway).

And for a glimpse of how different the trends are in the parallel universe of progressive private schools, look also at this San Francisco Chronicle story on an Oakland elementary school that's phasing out gender differences altogether -- offering unisex bathrooms and no longer segregating activities by gender -- in response to increasing numbers of "gender fluid" kindergarteners. What gender should their teachers be, we wonder?

Update: The full text of the Dee's article is now available in PDF form on the Education Next Web site.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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