Academic journal article Education Next

The Why Chromosome: How a Teacher's Gender Affects Boys and Girls

Academic journal article Education Next

The Why Chromosome: How a Teacher's Gender Affects Boys and Girls

Article excerpt

Gender gaps in educational outcomes are a matter of real and growing concern. We've known for a long time, since the 1970s, that girls outscore boys in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading tests, while boys tend to outperform girls in math and science.

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Boys are increasingly less likely than girls to attend college and to receive a bachelor's degree. Meanwhile, female college students continue to be underrepresented in such technical fields as engineering and computer science.

One popular, if controversial, response to these patterns has been a renewed push for single-sex education--an effort that has drawn support from across political divides. An amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act authorizing the creation of single-sex public schools was sponsored by Republican senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, but the measure passed in large part due to the support of Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, a Wellesley College graduate grateful for her opportunity to attend one of the country's premier women's colleges. ("Wellesley nurtured, challenged, and guided me," she declared in her 1992 Commencement Day speech.) The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education reports that, as of April 2006, at least 223 public schools in the United States were offering gender-separate educational opportunities, up from just 4 in 1998. Although most were coeducational schools with single-sex classrooms, 44 were wholly single-sex.

The majority of arguments for single-sex schools and classrooms focus on the effects on interactions among students, but they also present the possibility of greatly increasing the number of students with teachers of the same gender. Is there any convincing evidence that doing so could make a difference in education--for boys and girls alike? So far the jury has been out, but my analysis of national survey and test-score data collected by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) allows me to offer new and convincing evidence of the differential impact of a teacher's gender on student learning.

The Gender Gap

The evolution of the gender gaps in achievement as children mature suggests that what occurs in schools and classrooms may play an important role. According to the Department of Education's Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, when children enter kindergarten, the two genders perform similarly on tests of both reading and mathematics. But a few years later, by the spring of the 3rd grade, boys, on average, outperform girls in math and science, while the girls outperform the boys in reading. Disconcertingly, NAEP results show that for children between the ages of 9 and 13, the gender gaps in science and reading roughly double and the math gap increases by two-thirds. For children between the ages of 13 and 17, there is modest growth in the math and reading gender gaps but a substantial expansion of the gap in science (see Figure 1).

The gender gaps in achievement as students finish high school are far from trivial. In reading, 17-year-old boys score 31 percent of a standard deviation below 17-year-old girls, a deficit equal to about one grade level. This is nearly half the size of the black-white test-score gap in reading. In science and math, meanwhile, girls of that age score 22 percent and 10 percent of a standard deviation lower, respectively, also a difference worthy of concern.

Drowned out by the din of public argument over the role of nature vs. nurture is a debate, far from settled, over exactly how the experience of going to school shapes learning among boys and girls. One school of thought contends that teachers, both men and women, treat boys and girls differently in the classroom. For example, some controversial evidence, based on classroom observations, suggests that both are likely to offer praise and remediation in response to comments by boys but mere acknowledgment to comments by girls. …

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