Researching economist Thomas Dee for my article on his new No Child Left Behind study led me to a fascinating published piece by him a few years back on whether the gender of the teacher influences student performance. In his paper, he states, “My results indicate that learning from a teacher of the opposite gender has a detrimental effect on students’ academic progress and their engagement in school. My best estimate is that it lowers test scores for both boys and girls by approximately 4 percent of a standard deviation and has even larger effects on various measures of student engagement.”
I was particularly interested in Dee’s findings on boys and middle school since I am about to send my twins off to sixth grade. My son has never had a male teacher, and I think he would love it. I am not sure if he will have a male teacher in middle school as most of our teachers are women.
Please read the study for yourself, but I pulled some interesting passages from it:
-For three subject areas–science, social studies, and English-the overall effect of having a woman teacher instead of a man raises the achievement of girls by 4 percent of a standard deviation and lowers the achievement of boys by roughly the same amount, producing an overall gender gap of 8 percent of a standard deviation, no small matter if it can be assumed that this happened over the course of a single year.
-Test-score benefits for girls of having a female teacher are concentrated in social studies. I estimate that a female social-studies teacher increases a girl’s performance by 9 percent of a standard deviation. In contrast, the impact in English is not statistically significant. For boys, the largest effect appears in science.
-Regardless of the academic subject, boys are two to three times more likely than girls to be seen as disruptive, inattentive, and unlikely to complete their homework. However, how boys and girls view academic subjects varies across subjects in ways that parallel the gender gaps in subject test scores. For example, girls are more likely than boys to report that they are afraid to ask questions in math, science, and social studies. They are also less likely to look forward to these classes or to see them as useful for their future. Meanwhile, boys, as compared to girls, register more negative perceptions of English classes.
-Furthermore, when taught by a man, girls were more likely to report that they did not look forward to a subject, that it was not useful for their future, or that they were afraid to ask questions. This dynamic is strongest in science, where student reports indicate that female science teachers are far more effective in promoting girls’ engagement with this field of study. The estimated effects in the other two subjects pointed in the same direction but were statistically insignificant when examined separately.
Boys also had fewer positive reactions to their academic subject when taught by an opposite-gender teacher. In particular, when taught by a female teacher, boys were significantly more likely to report that they did not look forward to the subject. This effect appears to have been particularly pronounced when the female teacher was in history.
Results in math differ strikingly from those in the other subject areas, but I place little weight on the findings in this area for reasons that require explanation. My initial analysis showed that both boys and girls suffered if they had a woman teacher. Both girls and boys scored 7 percent and 8 percent of a standard deviation lower, respectively, than if they had a man. But before rushing to the conclusion that math is a subject uniquely suited for male instruction, one needs to take into account other possible explanations.
I can rule out some obvious candidates. There is no evidence, for example, that female math teachers were given larger classes or were less likely to hold the proper subject-specific qualifications, such as proper state certification or a subject-specific degree at either the undergraduate or graduate level.
But I was concerned about the likelihood that women teachers are assigned the less-promising math students. Administrators may think that women are better equipped to handle more difficult students or that men are better able to challenge the bright ones. If so, then it could appear that students benefit less from women teachers simply because they are given the lower-achieving ones in the first place.
To check this out, I estimated the effect of having a female math teacher on students’ science scores. This can be ascertained because students were tested in all four subjects, although only two of their teachers were surveyed. The reasoning behind this admittedly indirect test is that the gender of a student’s math teacher should have relatively small effects on performance in science class taught by another teacher, especially in 8th grade, when science instruction usually does not have a significant mathematical component. If a student with a female math teacher also scores poorly in science, that would be a sign of a lower-performing student overall, not evidence that the gender of the teacher in the math class is having a negative impact.
And that is precisely what I found. The apparent impact of having a female math teacher on a girl’s performance in science was a negative 4 percent of a standard deviation, a fairly large effect (though one that was only weakly significant from a statistical point of view). In fact, the apparent impact on science performance was two-thirds the size of the effect on math performance. That suggests that any estimates of the effect of teacher gender on girls’ math achievement may well be biased by the fact that women are more likely to be assigned to lower-performing math students.
–Adverse gender effects have an impact on both boys and girls, but that effect falls more heavily on the male half of the population in middle school, simply because most middle-school teachers are female. My estimates suggest that, if half of the English teachers in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades were male and their effects on learning were additive, the achievement gap in reading would fall by approximately a third by the end of middle school. Similarly, these results suggest that part of boys’ relative propensity to be seen as disruptive in these grades is due to the gender interactions resulting from the preponderance of female teachers.
–Unfortunately, in a coeducational setting, some of this gap closing would take place at the expense of the opposite gender, an outcome few would embrace. No one wants to see girls do worse in reading, or boys fare worse in science.