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Guest Post by Deepika Narasimhan—The Need for Female Voices in the Education Reform Debate

by Deepika Narasimhan

November 28, 2012 | 10:43 am

Deepika Narasimhan

In the world of education reform, there has been a lot of talk lately about bringing accountability into the teaching profession. The newest set of policy pursuits is based in research that says that a good teacher is one of the most important factors in student success.  As a result, I have seen various attempts to recruit the best, weed out the worst, and measure their success in my last few years working in education policy. But with American spending on education substantially higher per student than most industrialized nations and students still falling behind in reading, math, and science, educators and policymakers alike have been seeking out solutions to this education “problem.” Various proposals have been suggested and/or implemented, including getting tougher on tenure, evaluation frameworks that include measures of student outcomes, and even offering cash incentives to teachers who get students to pass tests.

But in a profession that is overwhelmingly female, (76% in public schools nationwide):  why isn’t gender considered to be an important factor in the education reform debate?

Look at Finland, a country being touted for its educational successes. Finland is consistently a top performer in the Programme for International Student Assessment, an international exam from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development given to 15 year olds. The U.S. came in 17th in overall standings, setting off a round of alarmist speeches and spelling out impending doom for America’s educational (and economic) future.

For many reformers, the refrain has become, “How do we copy Finland’s success?”

Well, one of Finland’s top school reformers, Pasi Sahlberg, recently argued that, as evidenced in his country, educational success is connected to other development factors, including gender equality. He contends that the current educational reform movement is a “masculine construction of market rationale and power” and that this business-minded approach to education is a result of minimal female representation in the political and corporate arenas, which is in direct contrast with Finland’s nearly gender-equal political representation (The Answer Sheet).

The numbers in the United States support Sahlberg’s stance. Only 32% of the highest education posts (Superintendents/Commissioners/Secretaries of Education) are held by women. That is to say, even in a female-dominated profession, the majority of top leadership in the United States is male. Add this to the mostly male-funded philanthropic efforts, such as the Broad and Gates Foundations, and female representation in the reform movement is further diminished.

Sahlberg continues to argue that gender equality is a “particularly relevant variable to be included in the analysis of a country’s child welfare and education policies” because women are particularly attuned to children’s needs. He also projects that more women making decisions on education policy would result in a stronger focus on early childhood development programs and better pay for teachers.

We can challenge the validity of such hypotheticals and argue that several other pedagogically-based factors produce more direct results, but bringing more female voices into the reform debate can only have positive outcomes, particularly because the majority of those affected by teacher reforms happen to be women. And by improving the quality of teaching, we can make it a more appealing profession for both men and women.

To find out more about your state's teacher effectiveness action plan, visit the US Department of Education's page on Teacher Quality Grants. You can also find more updated information on each individual state or district's Department of Education websites.  

Deepika Narasimhan is an educational media consultant, and has worked with the New York City Department of Education, and on international education in India, Egypt, and South Africa.

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Maya Paley is Director of Legislative and Community Engagement at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles. The programs she works on include the annual Jewish...

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