Book calls male teacher push into question

Desperate attempts by school systems to recruit male teachers, especially at the elementary level, do not necessarily pay off in improved student performance, a new book by Western researchers suggests.

In Gender, Race and the Politics of Role Modeling: The Influence of Male Teachers, released in January 2012, Faculty of Education professors Wayne Martino and Goli Rezai-Rashti found the gender and race of a teacher were inconsequential to student performance, but superior teaching pedagogy – the individual strategies and styles of teaching – is the key to success.

The study, funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant, incorporated classroom observations and one-on-one interviews with teachers, students and administrators from a variety of institutions over four years (2006-10). More than 70 elementary school teachers were interviewed, incorporating 20 classrooms in Canada and 10 in Australia.

“Students would specifically tell us the worst or best teacher could be male or the worst or best teacher could be female. It was very difficult for kids to say, ‘Yes, I really like male teachers because I learn better with them,’” Rezai-Rashti says. “Whether they were boys or girls, both said to us, ‘It really depends.’ That was their predominate answer: It depends.”

For students, ‘depends’ was based on, according to the researchers, the pedagogy of the teacher.

“You cannot replace a female teacher with a male and it’s going to make a difference for those kids,” Martino says. “It’s not about the gender of the teacher, but the quality of the pedagogy.”

The book could be a game-changer in education circles. Its findings run counter to the conventional wisdom which says, among other equations, male students learn better from male teachers and/or black students learn better from black teachers. Media reports in North America, United Kingdom and Australia have pushed the notion, which eventually found its way into government policy.

But there has been little academic research to support or refute the belief. Until now.

“There was a very simplistic way policy-makers addressed the issue of boy under-achieving,” Rezai-Rashti says.

Last week, the European Journal of Sociology published a statistics-driven paper, titled Blasting the Myth of the Same-Sex Teacher Advantage, which found no evidence of an advantage a same-sex teacher for boys or girls. This quantitative data, combined with Western’s qualitative, represents a potential titanic shift in thinking, especially related to policy.

Martino and Rezai-Rashti stressed any future policy around this issue needs to be grounded in evidence and research.

“Policy-makers need to read this book really carefully,” Rezai-Rashti says, “and think about how they can strategize for students who are not achieving. And they are not only boys. There are many students who are not doing well in our school system.”

“You cannot, on an ideological front, reduce the issue to the gender of the teacher,” Martino continues. “You cannot say male teachers are going to make a difference academically when there is no evidence to support that.”

The researchers stress their findings in no way diminish the importance of a teaching makeup representative of different sexes, races and cultures. Diversity remains an important part of any school environment. But the findings demand realistic expectations for outcomes. And while they found students predominately do not view teachers as role models, that doesn’t mean their influence is non-existent.

“We don’t discount the need for representation. Representation is important so students, particularly minority students, see themselves reflected in the teaching population,” Martino says. “But you cannot claim on the basis of representation that it is necessarily going to produce better academic outcomes. It might, but there is no evidence.

“You cannot reduce something that is complex to the singularity of a teacher’s race or gender.”