Closing the gender achievement gap

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Of the numerous achievement gaps besetting the country, none is quite as puzzling as that between boys and girls. Girls are better readers in elementary school, and their advantage over boys in reading only grows the older they get. Girls are also more likely to finish high school and go on to college.

Some argue that the gender gap in learning is tied up with the gender gap in the teaching profession: three of every four teachers are women. Male teachers, it is presumed, could better establish the kind of personal relationships that would motivate boys to succeed.

Jantine Spilt and her colleagues tried to test this hypothesis by surveying 600 Dutch elementary teachers on their perceived relationships with male and female students. The study found that compared to female teachers, male teachers actually report more conflict with male students. So much for theories about male student/male teacher bonding!

The researchers readily admit their research has limitations. The study only examined teachers' perceptions of relationship quality, not students' perceptions. Nor did it examine whether teachers' perceptions of their relationships predict their students' long-term success. No doubt it will take more than this study to lay to rest the intuitive appeal of thinking that we need more male teachers, especially for low-income students who tend to be raised disproportionally by single moms.

In the midst of thinking about the need for teachers to serve as male role models, we also need to think about what is probably the root cause of boys' relatively poor performance in school: their relatively weaker reading skills compared to girls. We bet that if the country implemented strong reading instruction delivered by effective teachers of both genders—see the next piece on Florida's efforts, for example—along with a broad curriculum with more reading materials that interest boys, much of the gender gap in student achievement would fade.