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Published: Friday, 9/1/2006

Teaching skills matter most

DOES gender make a difference when it comes to a teacher s ability to reach students of the opposite sex? A Swarthmore College associate professor says it can, although he doesn t suggest teachers should only teach students of the same sex.

That s a good thing, because schools have enough problems without having to worry about that, too. However, Thomas Dee s study does cast light on the need for more male teachers.

His work was just published in the Hoover Institution s Education Next, and it comes at a time when 80 percent of all public school teachers are women. In fact, the proportion of male teachers right now is at the lowest level in 40 years. That makes it clear that recruiting efforts should be aimed at achieving more of a balance.

While Mr. Dee s study should promote interesting conversations, some of his raw data are dated. The study is based on a 1988 U.S. Department of Education survey of 25,000 eighth graders. That material indicated that boys learn more from men and girls learn more from women. When the gender of teachers was changed, students of the opposite gender did worse.

But that s hardly gospel. Most of us have fond memories of a great teacher of the opposite sex who inspired us. That s why Marcia Greenberger of the National Women s Law Center is right when she said Mr. Dee s data are far from convincing.

Fortunately, Mr. Dee also a visiting scholar at Stanford University doesn t urge assigning teachers by gender. That wouldn t only be foolish, it would be impossible since there are not enough male teachers to go around. Another problem: the threat of discrimination lawsuits.

What we need to do is recruit more male teachers and make sure they come from diverse backgrounds.

That s the real message that Mr. Dee s study has to offer.

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