by William Gormley, PhD

In recent years, education experts have converged on one big idea: Teachers matter. Studies show that years of good teaching can set a student on a good path, while years of bad teaching can do the opposite.

Yet only a fraction of our teachers are the best and the brightest of their generation. According to a 2010 McKinsey report, nearly half of U.S. teachers come from the bottom third of their class.

Here’s a simple idea that could dramatically improve the teaching quality: Hire a few good men.

Despite some inroads by men, teaching remains a female-dominated profession. This is especially true for younger children. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2 percent of pre-K and kindergarten teachers and 18 percent of elementary and middle-school teachers are men.

The situation is more balanced, but not evenly balanced, in secondary school, where 42 percent of teachers are men.

Why should this concern us?

First, men represent an underutilized talent pool. If we could attract more males to teaching, school districts would have an easier time hiring outstanding individuals. The point is not that men are better teachers, but that highly qualified men are far less likely to apply for teaching jobs.

Second, boys in particular benefit from the presence of male role models in the classroom. As Stanford University professor Thomas Dee has documented, in a study of more than 20,000 middle-school students, boys perform better when they have a male teacher, and girls perform better when they have a female teacher. If we want to do something about boys’ often sluggish classroom performance, more male teachers could be a useful step.

Third, we especially need black male teachers in the classroom. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan has argued, “All of our students benefit from having a black male in the classroom. But particularly our young black males.” Yet black males represent a mere 2 percent of the K-12 teaching workforce. If this were to change, we might begin to see better educational outcomes and life outcomes for young black males.

How might we encourage more men to consider teaching?

Schools of education should aggressively recruit male applicants by working through high school guidance counselors. Teach for America should target male applicants. And well-designed performance pay plans for teachers might entice more talented men to choose teaching as a vocation.

We could also strengthen the Troops to Teachers program, founded in 1993. Rep. Tom Petri, R.-Wis., has recently sought to increase the number of veterans — most of whom are male — who are eligible to participate and to increase the number of schools in which they might serve.

Higher wages for teachers could help. But higher pay could be a consequence, not a cause, of more male teachers. As Stanford professor Paula England has found, wages tend to be lower, on average, in female-dominated professions. With more males in teaching, wages for men and women might rise.

In recent decades, women have made tremendous strides in previously male-dominated professions, such as medicine, law and higher education. These professions are stronger as a result.

Our children deserve the very best teachers we can find, whether men or women. We need to be more creative in letting young men know that they should consider teaching as a profession.

William Gormley is a professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute
 and co-director of the Center for Research on Children in the United States. He also is the author of Voices for Children: Rhetoric and Public Policy.