Andrew Oswald: Why boys need to be taught by male teachers

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The Independent Online

This is Thursday so she must be from Cornell.

We are heavily into hiring season in British universities. The myriad titles of the candidates' job-talks look strange but interesting. The econometrics of happiness. Exchange rate dynamics in Chile. S-s models and inflation. Altruism experiments in the laboratory.

Like artichokes, the 2006 crop of PhD students has been nurtured in hothouses around the globe. Now they are ushered through Terminals 2 and 4 at Heathrow, gently turned over, bitten into, applauded, and, of course, sometimes rejected. Compared to the old days, when there was a less international market, and personal ties and influence controlled much of what happened, this is a more brutal but meritocratic, and probably also more efficient, way to match people with job slots.

My department has for weeks been listening to apprentice lecturers make their pitch for the vacant posts, and then quizzing them over dinners and coffees. Offer letters have just gone out and a fair number of acceptance emails will be on their way in.

One thing that is noticeable is the greater number of women now coming out of PhD programmes. Whether I am chairing a hiring panel in another department, or sitting in on young economists' seminars, I see a fairer mix of male and female candidates.

Of course, a long-standing imbalance is still visible. Of the 50 staff who teach economics in my department, 20 per cent are women. Among the support and admin staff, 90 per cent are women. Since its inception in 1969, no female has won the Nobel Prize in economics, and, across all disciplines, since 1901 only 33 females have won Prizes compared to 725 males.

Yet there is some small sign of change. For example, 30 per cent of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology Phd-graduating class in economics are female, compared to a figure of 15 per cent among the people who teach the subject there.

Gender is an emotive subject. The most interesting recent research I have seen on it, although about schools not universities, is a paper by an innovative young economist called Thomas Dee. If you work in education at any level, you'll get a lot from a web search to find his remarkable research.

Mr Dee provides new evidence, on an old question, showing that it is important for boys to be taught by men and for girls to be taught by women. If that upsets you, and it will many people, his papers are worth reading before you decide to be against them.

He takes a mass of longitudinal data on 25,000 8th-grade American children, draws upon that information in a careful way, and blends it with data on their classroom teachers. He makes sure to control for the possibility that certain kinds of children are deliberately allocated to certain kinds of teachers. If we are to be sure about causality, this check is important. His is one of the most interesting studies I have seen.

This subject matters. As in the United Kingdom, boys in the US do substantially less well at school than girls. Just as in the UK, nobody really understands why.

Mr Dee thinks he does. The author's conclusions are striking. For young males, one extra year spent with a male English teacher would eliminate nearly a third of the gender gap in reading performance among 13-year-olds. For young females, one more year with a female teacher would close approximately half of the gender gap in science achievement.

These are just patterns that come out of his data set. His argument about why, however, is a plausible one: children are natural emulators. Boys and girls absorb information differently from men and women, and they need role models.

Britain's education establishment should look into this research. Here, roughly two-thirds of teachers are female (compared to the one-third found in universities, law firms, and professional medical practices). In the mid-1980s, the proportions of boys and girls getting five or more good GCSEs were equal, at about 30 per cent across the sexes.

Today, the good news is that 60 per cent of girls go on to attain this level. Yet only 50 per cent of boys do so. More generally, girls out-perform boys at all levels of compulsory education in our country. True, some of that is made back at university. Our universities are not full of female professors. But the bigger issue is why young males are steadily falling behind.

If Mr Dee is right, we have an important part of the answer. Boys need to have men at the whiteboard.

The writer is a Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick