Published Online: September 20, 2006

Sex Education

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A teacher’s gender has a significant effect on student academic performance, perhaps contributing to national achievement gaps between boys and girls in certain subjects, according to new analysis of federal data.

The study, published in the fall issue of the journal Education Next, examined results from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey, a 1988 U.S. Department of Education initiative that collected test scores and questionnaire responses from more than 20,000 8th graders and their teachers.

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The study’s author, Thomas S. Dee, an associate professor of economics at Swarthmore College, found that “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. …”

In examining why a teacher’s gender would affect student performance, Dee says the NELS data contain “suggestive evidence” that teachers’ and students’ opinions about each other are “shaped in part by gender characteristics.”

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“When a class is headed by a woman,” Dee writes, “boys are more likely to be seen as disruptive, while girls are less likely to be seen as either disruptive or inattentive.” Further, both boys and girls had “fewer positive reactions” to subjects taught by a teacher of the opposite gender.

Dee notes that, because most teachers today are women, his findings are particularly important in connection with boys.

Dee cautions against seeing his study as necessarily making a case for single-sex classrooms, however, since “gender dynamics” may differ in such settings. Instead, he suggests the effects of “more limited interventions”—such as teacher-training initiatives that examine gender biases and different learning styles—be considered as well.

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