In the late seventies and early eighties when I was diligently avoiding work at my private high school, science, history, languages, art, and drama were co-ed classes, but home-room, English, math and PE classes were single-sex classes. Before long, however, the forces of political correctness, armed with a familiar chant of “separate is NOT equal,” drove the school to fully integrated co-ed classes with PE as the sole remaining hold-out. I remember feeling a pang of loss when I heard the news, but couldn’t really define why.
Oddly enough, the school now finds itself in a position where despite theoretical equal access to high-level science classes, not one single young lady enrolled in last year’s AP Physics class, which saw over thirty young men perform admirably on the AP test at the end of the school year. So access clearly isn’t the only problem.
In 1989, when I found myself a teacher at a completely co-ed public high school in southern California, I ultimately concluded that the single biggest distraction in the classroom was the opposite sex, and I would have welcomed the idea of teaching two separate physics classes, one to the boys and one to the girls. I struggled to reach both the young men and the women in the class, and found myself half-way through the first semester with the women’s grades starting to slip en-mass. I spent a couple of months trying to come up with different ways of reaching and inspiring the young ladies to no avail. The average girl’s GPA had slipped a whopping 9 points lower than the average boy’s grade by the second month of the final semester. By that time, I was loosing quite a lot of sleep over the issue.
Thankfully, I made a breakthrough when the class was studying electrostatics and simple circuits. Three of my best female students had teamed up to build, test and debug some of the simple battery-resistor-capacitor-transistor circuits I had designed for the class. halfway through the period one of them came to me and said, “Mr. Alvelda, I think we’ve put the circuit together properly but it just doesn’t seem to work.”
When I joined them at their lab bench to check their progress, I found some of the most meticulous and carefully constructed prototype circuitry I have ever seen to this day. But curiously, despite our classroom conversation about conductors and insulators, the young ladies had failed to strip the insulation off the ends of the interconnecting wires. My jaw was hanging open; it had never even occurred to me that someone might reach their teenage years without having assembled an electrical circuit, wire stripping and all. And I had never mentioned the critical step in the entire lab setup.
Of course, when I gently reminded the young ladies of our insulator/conductor discussions, and showed them how the wires were manufactured to allow connections only where you want them while preventing electrical shorts elsewhere, they caught on in a flash and had the circuit working flawlessly in the span of a few minutes.
That moment clearly illustrated to me that all of my assumptions about what kids should have know by the time they reached my class were colored by my own experience, with a father who had me building full-blown radios and computers by the time I was twelve. I had been speaking with a vocabulary and set of experiences much more in common with the young men, and failing to reach the women who did not have similar backgrounds. So I undertook a monumental effort to completely revise my entire Physics curriculum so that it assumed no prior knowledge whatsoever.
Within thirty days, the women’s grades started to recover, and by the end of the school year they ultimately surpassed the men’s grades due largely to a slightly more mature and disciplined approach to studying. I wondered to what extent other teachers have had similar experiences.
From my own personal teaching experience, I wasn’t surprised to see the results of this controversial new study scheduled to appear today in “Education Next,” a quarterly journal published by the Hoover Institution. Thomas Dee, an Associate Professor of Economics at Swarthmore College, and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, has studied the effect of teacher gender on education to conclude that girls learn more from women and boys learn more from men.
Dee examined the performance of nearly 25,000 eighth-graders, the stage of development at which gender gaps in performance begin to arise. He found that with a female teacher, girls performed better (and boys performed worse) in science, social studies, and English, than if the teacher were male.
The effect on students attitude was also measurable. “In a class taught by a man, girls were more likely to say the subject
was not useful for their future. They were less likely to look forward
to the class or to ask questions. With a female teacher, boys were more likely to be seen as
disruptive. Girls were less likely to be considered inattentive or
While obviously controversial, the study is consistent with the findings of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS]
that found, among other things, that the percentage of a country’s 12th grade boys who comprehend probability and statistics increases 1% for each 2% increase in that country’s male teachers.
With women comprising roughly 80% of the public school teaching force, and high-level math and physics classes skewed heavily towards male teachers, this is clearly an issue worth looking into.