Mars and Venus in the Classroom

By Richard Morin
Thursday, May 18, 2006

First the good news: One year with a male English teacher would eliminate nearly a third of the gender gap in reading performance among 13-year-olds.

Now the bad: Having a male teacher improves the performance of boys while harming girls' reading skills. On the other hand, a year with a female teacher would close the gender gap in science achievement among 13-year-old girls by half and eliminate the smaller achievement gap in mathematics, says economist Thomas S. Dee of Swarthmore College, who examined data collected from more than 20,000 eighth-graders beginning in 1988.

In kindergarten, boys and girls do equally as well on tests of reading readiness, general knowledge and math. By third grade, boys have slightly higher math scores and slightly lower reading scores -- gaps that widen as the children grow older.

The gender gaps for children age 9 to 13 approximately double in science and reading. And by the time they're 17, "the underperformance of . . . boys in reading is equivalent to 1.5 years of schooling, and though men continue to be over-represented in college level science and engineering, girls are now more likely to go to college and persist in earning a degree," Dee said in a recent working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Dee found that assigning boys to male teachers and girls to female instructors "significantly improves the achievement of both girls and boys as well as teacher perceptions of student performance and student engagement with the teacher's subject."

That's particularly bad news for boys, because more than eight in 10 sixth- and eighth-grade reading and English teachers are women, he reported.

"The fact that most middle school teachers of math, science, and history are also female may raise girls' achievement. In short, the current gender imbalance in middle school staffing may be reducing the gender gap in science by helping girls but exacerbating the gender gap in reading by handicapping boys," according to a summary of his study in the latest NBER Digest.

The Experiment: Katrina

Nearly 2,000 people have participated in our latest online experiment, but we want more, more, more. These are real experiments in the social sciences developed by Stanford University's political communication lab in collaboration with The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com. To participate, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/richmorin , look for the box headlined "Post-Stanford Experiments" and choose survey No. 4.

The History of Bad IdeasWhy Boys Like Science

Speaking of the science gender gap, researchers have yet to fully identify its causes. Over-thought and overwrought hypotheses abound.

Our favorite theory comes from UCLA's Sandra Harding in her 1991 book, "Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?" She suggested that young boys may go into science while young girls stay away because of all the naughty bits in scientific books and research articles.

"Sexist and misogynistic metaphors," have excited people's imaginations and "have apparently energized generations of male science enthusiasts," wrote Harding, a professor of social science and comparative education. Among the scientists she faults for writing soft porn: Francis Bacon, who wrote in his 1623 work "Of the Dignity and Advancement of Learning" that "neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into those holes and corners [of nature] when the inquisition of truth is his whole object."

Whoa, I want to be a physicist !

Harding's howler was featured last year in a journal article on bad scholarly writing by Jethro K. Lieberman, professor and associate dean of New York Law School -- though Liberman allowed it may not be "a good or fair example of bad writing, only bad thinking."

Know of a truly bad idea? Send it to morinr@washpost.com. If I feature your suggestion in the newspaper, I'll treat you to lunch.

Who Would Have Thought? Touchy Consumers, Wicked Stepmothers and Sexy TV

"Consumer Contamination: How Consumers React to Products Touched by Others" by Jennifer J. Argo, Darren W. Dahl and Andrea C. Morales. Journal of Marketing, Vol. 70, No. 2. Canadian and American marketing professors find that consumers prefer to touch an item before deciding whether to buy it but are disinclined to purchase goods if they know they have been touched by others.

"Household Allocations for Children's College Education: Evidence for the 'Snow White' Effect" by John Henretta, Beth J. Soldo and Matthew Van Voorhis. Paper presented at the last Population Association of America conference. A University of Florida researcher and his colleagues find that stepchildren receive far less help with their college expenses if they are from a household with a stepmother and somewhat less assistance in households with a stepfather.

"Television Viewing and Risk of Sexual Initiation by Young Adolescents" by Sarah L. Ashby, Christine M. Arcari and M. Bruce Edmonson. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 160, No. 4. University of Wisconsin researchers find that sexually inexperienced 16-year-olds were more likely to have sex earlier if they watched more than two hours of television per day and their parents strongly disapproved of sex.

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