Gender only one factor in student achievement


A new report re-opens a long-simmering debate, suggesting that the gender gap between male and female students can be bridged by assigning teachers to students of the same gender. It’s not that simple, say Minnesota educators.

“Teachers and Gender Gaps in Student Achievement” by the National Bureau of Economic Research outlines the gender gap: While boys and girls in kindergarten do equally well in reading and math, by third grade boys have slightly higher math scores and lower reading scores, and between ages 9 and 13 the gender gap doubles in science and reading.

Teachers paired with same-sex students closes the gender gap in draconian ways: “One year with a male English teacher would eliminate nearly a third of the gender gap in reading performance among 13 year olds,” the authors wrote. “It would do so by improving the performance of boys and simultaneously harming that of girls. … Female history teachers significantly raised girls’ history achievement, but boys were more likely to report they did not look forward to a particular academic subject when it was taught by a female.”

While the theory behind the study’s conclusions may be accurate, “this information doesn’t ring true,” said Joann Knuth, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals.

Knuth has had a long career as a teacher, principal and superintendent. She takes the long view: “The achievement gap won’t be fixed by the sex of the teacher but the engagement of the teacher.” In her years as a leader in education, she has learned that gender is only one of the moving parts of the achievement gap.

The report, written by Swarthmore College economics professor Thomas Dee, makes the argument that female teachers treat male students differently than female students, and vice versa. Female teachers depress boys’ achievements. Most elementary school teachers are female, as are most middle school teachers of math, science, and history. This imbalance may help girls but exacerbates the gender gap by handicapping boys.

Dee defines the perishable future of students caught in the gender gap. Underperformance of 17-year-old boys in reading is equivalent to more than one year of education, and while more men enroll in college science and engineering programs, women are more likely to go to college and persist in earning a degree.

The source of these gender differences has long been a topic of heated debate. General intelligence tests show no overall differences while men perform better at certain spatial visual tasks and women excel verbally. Dee posits that while these differences may someday be traced back to differences in hormonal exposure or male and female brain structures, it is also possible that differences arise from that male and female teachers have a tendency to treat boys and girls differently in the classroom.

In most studies of the achievement gap, gender problems rarely rate a mention, and then only behind gaps between majority/minority student racial group gaps, and gaps between students along socio-economic lines.

Since the number of men who become teachers remains steady, the reality of pairing teachers with same-sex students is functionally improbable. Gender-based education reform shouldn’t principally drive Minnesota education policy, at least until more pressing and prescient challenges are solved.

Gender differences “may be a piece of the puzzle,” Knuth said Tuesday, but “it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Like all the pieces of the gender gap or achievement gap, it’s the socio-economic factors are more important.”

In the meantime, studies such as Dee’s “Teachers and Gender Gaps in Student Achievement” can help inform Minnesota’s public policy debate but with an important caveat: a student’s economic background and the school district’s funding stability are far more critical factors. Only by overcoming those, will we be able to move forward on same gender teacher-student ratio disparity.