Male teachers have long been a rare sight in public schools. Now a survey by the country's largest teachers' union shows that men made up only 2 of 10 teachers in the 2000-01 school year. That's the lowest ratio in four decades. In the 1960s, men were about one-third of the teaching force.
Further, the survey by the National Education Association (NEA) revealed that only 1 in 10 teachers is a member of a racial or ethnic minority - in a nation where 4 of 10 students are.
Such lopsided figures could contribute to a widening student achievement gap. Already fewer men than women attend college, and fewer blacks and Hispanics attain the same academic achievements as whites.
Having so few men in the classroom sends a message to kids that men aren't natural nurturers, or fuels a perception that teaching is solely a woman's profession.
The presence of positive male role models could help offset negative images of men that kids see in the media. The need for male role models at school can be especially important for children with single moms. The latest Census figures show 23.3 percent of children under 18 live in single-parent households.
A teacher's race or sex, of course, isn't as important as the quality of her or his teaching. But clearly, kids can better accept differences when exposed to greater racial diversity and the expression of both male and female qualities. More men can recognize the rewards of working with and teaching children and step up to the teaching profession. And school administrators can find new ways to make teaching more inviting for men.
The NEA survey did have a couple of bright spots. About one-fifth of new teachers are minorities, and teachers are more qualified than ever before: In 1997 (the latest figures available), 98 percent of teachers had either a bachelor's or master's degree - up from 84 percent in 1961.