AMERICA'S largest teaching union has thrown its weight behind a drive to recruit more male teachers amid chronic and widening under-representation of men in the classroom.
At its annual conference in Dallas earlier this month, the National Education Association agreed to mount a campaign to woo men, with an emphasis on attracting racial minorities and men to primary schools.
According to the latest figures from the US education department, the proportion of male teachers in state schools has declined over the past 40 years. In 1961, 31 per cent of teachers were male. By 1996, men accounted for barely more than one-quarter of the workforce.
Staffrooms have also become less diverse. In 1972, 88 per cent of teachers were white. This had risen to 91 per cent six years ago.
Lagging salaries are thought to make teaching less attractive to men, compared to other professions. Teachers' wages barely kept pace with living costs during the 1990s and actually lost ground to inflation in many US states, according to the latest NEA salary survey.
Teachers' pay rose by 31 per cent on average from 1991 to 2001, level-pegging with many blue-collar jobs, while doctors and architects generally earned 52 per cent more.
Educational experts often blame the absence of positive male role models on delinquency and learning difficulties among male pupils at inner-city schools, many of whom have absent fathers.
Meanwhile, boys outnumber girls two-to-one in US special education classes, according to the latest troubling statistics, highlighting fears that pupils are being removed from normal classes for unruly behaviour.
Some 3.8 million boys were classified as special-needs cases in 2000, compared to 1.9 million girls, the most recent US education department survey found.
"A lot of elementary teachers are women - maybe they have less tolerance for rowdy behaviour," said Laurel Burman, director of citywide special education in Chicago, where boys make up 66 per cent of special education pupils.
The figures "raised a red flag" for Sandi Cole, director of the centre for education and lifelong learning at Indiana University.
"In my opinion, many boys are in special education classes due to issues of behaviour," she said. Boys are also slower to read than girls - the primary reason for being placed in special education, she added.
As well as the gender gap, ethnic-minority and socio-economically disadvantaged pupils are more likely to be placed in special education classes than their white peers, according to Ms Cole.
Current teaching and testing methods fail to account for non-verbal types of intelligence, she said.
Earlier this month, President Bush's Commission on Excellence in Special Education reported that existing methods of diagnosing pupils with learning disabilities "lack validity".
"As a result, thousands of children are misidentified every year, while many others are not identified early enough," it concluded.