Missing Misters

The worrying decline in the share of male teachers

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It is no secret that boys and men are lagging girls and women in schools and colleges. In the average school district, boys are now about a grade level behind girls in literacy. There is a bigger gender gap in college degrees today than in 1972 when Title IX was passed—but it is the other way around. Boys from lower-income backgrounds, and Black boys and men, face the biggest educational challenges. The feminist philosopher Cordelia Fine goes so far as to describe these inequalities as a “gendered injustice.”

Certainly these gender gaps ought to be a central concern of policymakers. Simply ensuring the availability of data is an important first step. Right now, states are not obligated to report their on-time high school graduation rates by gender, which is a serious oversight given that there are large gender gaps here in many states, especially for Black students.

So what can be done? One potential step towards improving academic outcomes for boys is to ensure strong representation of male teachers. Unfortunately, we are going backwards on this front. As we show in a new research brief, men account for just 23% of U.S. public elementary and secondary school teachers (not including kindergarten), down from 30% in 1988.

There are now more women working in STEM fields (26% female, up from 14% in 1980) than there are men working in school classrooms. There are strong efforts from government and philanthropy to further increase female representation in STEM. That is good. But there are no serious initiatives underway to stem the decline in male representation in teaching. That is not good.

Men are in the minority not only in classrooms of younger children but also in high schools (Figure 1).


Figure 1:

Of particular concern is the lack of male teachers in the subjects where boys are struggling most, especially literacy. Men account for 40% of high school teachers but just 26% of high school teachers in English and language arts. The only high school subjects where most teachers are male are physical education/health (59% male) and social sciences (59% male). Perhaps surprisingly, women account for more than half (54%) of vocational and technical teachers.

The lack of male teachers of color is even starker: only 6% of teachers are men of color. As Figure 2 shows, Black and Hispanic boys are more unlikely to have a teacher who looks like them. For every male teacher of the same race or ethnicity, there are 35 Black boys and 57 Hispanic boys. But it is worth nothing that even white boys are less likely to have a “matching” teacher than the least well-represented girls.


Figure 2:

Almost every parent and educator that I have spoken to would like to see more men teaching in our classrooms. Nobody thinks that the current trend, with the teaching profession becoming steadily more female over time, will be good news for our kids nor for the profession.

I’ll be honest: In terms of narrow academic outcomes, the evidence that male teachers matter is sparse and not entirely consistent. Some research suggests that teacher representation, specifically for Black students, affects engagement and performance. With regard to boys in particular, education researcher Thomas Dee estimates that the gender gap in middle school English performance would decrease by about a third if half of English teachers were men. Another study found that the gender gap in school math performance halved in 9th-grade classes that were taught by a man.

Students are also more likely to report that they look forward to a subject when it’s taught by a teacher of the same gender. Some research suggests that the positive effect of teacher-matching may be driven by teachers having higher expectations of, or potentially devoting more attention to, students who are like them. Teachers tend to rate students of the same gender as more interested in the subject, less disruptive, and more likely to complete their homework relative to different-gender teacher-student pairs. But other studies find no strong relationship between teacher gender and outcomes. I hate saying this, but this really is an area where more research is required.

But I have come to believe that the value of male teachers is captured not only in improved academic outcomes but also in the role they play in our educational institutions and the lives of students as mentors and role models. I worry that the very idea of educational excellence is becoming “coded” as female. If boys see mostly women teaching, girls doing better at school, and women dominating colleges, it is harder for them to see learning (and teaching) as being for them. As the feminist slogan has it, “You have to see it to be it”.

There are some modest efforts to attract and retain more male teachers of color, including a residency program in Dallas, Texas; the NYC Men Teach program in New York City, which helped to add 1,000 men of color into the teaching pipeline in the city; and the Call me MISTER program South Carolina.

But much stronger efforts are needed, such as scholarships for men, peer support groups, male-friendly outreach efforts, and easier “lateral” moves into teaching for men who want to switch careers. This is a tall order: even returning to the 1988 male share would require over 230,000 additional male teachers. Reversing the downward trend in the share of male teachers will not be easy or quick. But that is a reason to start now.

Richard V. Reeves is president of the American Institute for Boys and Men.


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