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Education Reporter

Teacher's Gender Does Matter

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As debate over the "gender gap" rages, research conducted by Thomas S. Dee, associate professor of economics at Swarthmore College and a faculty research fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), indicates that a teacher's gender may have the greatest impact of all on student achievement. This is particularly true at the middle school level, where more than 80% of teachers are female.

Dee's study, titled Teachers and the Gender Gaps in Student Achievement (NBER Working Paper No. 11660) is an analysis of data collected in the 1988 National Education Longitudinal Survey (NELS).

Although the survey is dated, Dee studied the NELS because it contains data on a nationally representative sample of nearly 25,000 8th graders from 1,052 public and private schools. It also includes data from two of each student's teachers in two different subjects, allowing an evaluation of the outcomes of each student when paired with two different teachers.

Writing in the Fall 2006 issue of Education Next, Dee described the NELS as "a goldmine of information for those interested in gender dynamics within the classroom."

Among his key findings:

  • In English, science and social studies, having a female teacher instead of a male raises the achievement of girls by 4% of a standard deviation (the mean of the mean) while lowering the achievement of boys by the same amount.

  • The test-score advantage for girls of having a female teacher is concentrated in social studies, increasing their performance in the discipline by 9% of a standard deviation.

  • The greatest drop in achievement for boys is in science; boys' test scores drop 5% of a standard deviation when they have a female teacher.

  • Overall results show an average positive impact of 4% of a standard deviation on test scores for both boys and girls when the teacher-student gender is the same.

Why the gender difference?  
Dee reviewed teacher perceptions and measures of students' intellectual involvement also included in the NELS data, in an attempt to ascertain reasons for the achievement differences relative to teacher-student gender. He found that:

  • Boys are two to three times more likely to be viewed as disorderly and inattentive in class, and two to three times less likely to turn in homework.

  • Girls are more likely than boys to report being afraid to ask questions in math and science classes, particularly when taught by a man. Girls were also less likely to look forward to the class or find the subject useful for their future.

  • Overall, girls did better when taught by a woman, while boys' achievement improved when taught by a man.

Although Dee's study is being assailed — co-president of the National Women's Law Center, Marcia Greenberger, called the data "far from convincing," and NEA president Reg Weaver said student success "cannot be narrowed to the gender of the teacher" -Dee stands by his findings.

He raises the question of whether gender effects could be limited by offering teachers gender-specific training based on evidence supporting the different learning styles of boys and girls, as well as training to overcome gender biases in teacher behavior and expectations.

"My study suggests that gender interactions in the classroom matter, but it is still far from clear exactly why this is so," Dee wrote. "Perhaps the best policy solution is to keep an open mind about a variety of strategies that neither unequivocally endorse single-sex education nor rule it out of order altogether."

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