Perceptual Asymmetries

From cognition and perception to language in the brain

Intelligence, Sex of Teacher, and School Grades

Get away from stereotypes when discussing school grades.

My latest paper, co-authored with Susan D. Voyer, on “Gender Differences in Scholastic Achievement: A Meta-analysis” has proved to be of interest not only to researchers but also to most parents. In fact, our paper, that appeared online in Psychological Bulletin on April 28, 2014, has created a splash! I have never given so many interviews with reporters and I have never seen so many comments from interested bystanders on the web and in other media. The buzz was mostly about the findings that females have been receiving better grades than males at all levels of schooling except graduate school for almost 100 years. This even applies to areas stereotypically viewed as masculine such as math and science.

The many comments that I read as well as reporters’ takes on this paper scared me a bit. Essentially, it seems that everyone wants to give their own twist to our data. However, these various comments hit a little too close to home! Therefore, I feel that I should clarify the underlying reality as a reaction to some of the comments I heard or read since our paper came out. I hope that readers will not hold it against me if I prefer not to single out anyone for what my co-author and I view as erroneous conclusions.

Likely the most common “joke” or comment made on what we found is that our study shows that “girls are smarter than boys.” This is definitely not a question that was addressed in our paper. Intelligence is only one of the many factors that account for school grades and most of the papers that entered our analysis could be presented to support the importance of factors other than intelligence. From the literature we reviewed, girls might try harder, study differently, be more interested, or something else. When thinking about what we found, it is crucial to remember that our results pertain to differences on averages, meaning that not all girls do better than all boys. Therefore, moving forward from our findings, focus needs to be on how we can encourage all the students, regardless of gender, so that they can reach their full potential. We hope that our paper will stimulate research in that direction.

Another issue that has been raised by people who commented on our paper is that the majority of teachers are female which presumably favors girls. As a starting point, this is a groundless attack on the integrity of our hard-working teachers. Admittedly, data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (see nces.ed.gov) support the notion that female teachers are a large majority in the United States, accounting for about 75 percent of teachers in elementary and high schools. In reality, data that we uncovered provide no support for an effect of sex of the teacher on school grades (see, for example, Mullola et al., 2011, Teaching and Teacher Education, 27, 942–951. doi: 10.1016/j.tate.2011.03.005).

Furthermore, Scandinavian countries, where we found reduced gender differences in school grades, also typically have a majority of female teachers according to the “Narrowing the Gender Gap: Attracting Men to Teaching” report produced by the Ontario College Teachers and their partners (see page eight in their report, available at professionallyspeaking.oct). Therefore, we can clear the air about this issue: Sex of teachers is not a relevant factor. So, let us focus on what factors might be truly relevant to gender differences in scholastic achievement and move away from stereotypes!

Daniel Voyer, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

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