Learning the Hard Way
Is our educational system biased against boys?
The four deButts boys are crowded around a table at a sandwich shop, all arms and legs and opinions, ready to bust each other’s chops at the first opportunity. It’s not technically correct to even call the older ones boys, although you know that’s how their mother, Lisa Ostroff—who’s sitting nearby but giving them space—will always view them. At 21, Matt is a senior at Amherst College; Benjamin, 19, is a sophomore at Tufts University; Daniel, 15, is a sophomore at Yorktown High School; and Jonathan, the youngest at 11, is starting sixth grade at Williamsburg Middle. Even though it’s a sunny Saturday, they’re here to talk about school—the classes they’ve liked and the ones that bored them out of their minds.
Not surprisingly, all four brothers give a thumbs-up to the kinds of classes that researchers say work especially well for boys: interactive environments that got them on their feet, commanded their attention and had a real-life connection. None of their favorites involved a pedagogue standing in front of a classroom lecturing (cue the unintelligible “wah-wah-wah” sound of the teacher in the old Peanuts TV cartoons).
This observation begins to get at what some researchers and institutions have called a “crisis” in American education today. Conventional teaching methods, they argue, are not designed for how most boys think and learn, putting them at an academic disadvantage.
Fortunately for the deButts brothers, Arlington has its share of unconventional teachers. Benjamin, a graduate of Yorktown High School, remembers an Intensified Physics class and how his teacher, Chris Kaldahl, demonstrated electrical conductivity: “He made us get up on chairs and hold hands around the room. When one person touched the Van de Graaff [electrostatic] generator, the current instantly went through all of us.”
Matt, in turn, recalls an AP government course at H-B Woodlawn in which his teacher, Casey Robinson (now H-B’s vice principal), invited the students to sit on couches in the classroom—a setting he calls “convivial and homey and comfortable, which kept me interested.” That year happened to coincide with a Democratic primary, so Robinson also asked each student to adopt the persona of a real candidate and campaign around school, putting up signs and making speeches. “It felt more applied,” Matt says. “I wanted to do work outside of class.”
Daniel recounts how his Algebra 1 teacher at Williamsburg Middle, Wanda McPhee, made up little ditties about math that she sang to the class. “It was kind of silly,” he says, “but it was fun. She had a great singing voice. It made me want to pay attention, and I felt okay about asking questions.” (McPhee was named Williamsburg’s Teacher of the Year in 2009-10; she’s now at Thomas Jefferson Middle School.)
And what about their least favorite classes? All four brothers agree that they were most bored by teachers who relied on repetition and lecturing. Matt mentions the dreaded slideshow with particular scorn. “Even inanimate objects are more interesting than the slideshow,” he jokes.
Young Jonathan quietly raises his hand and waits to be called on before he speaks. “I don’t like when they’re explaining something without adding any fun at all,” he says. “I like movement,” he adds, summing it all up.
The deButts brothers are lucky. They’re all bright and articulate and have grown up in a stable, supportive family that places a premium on education. They play sports and have hobbies, and they benefit from like-minded peers and mentors. The younger two will no doubt follow in their older brothers’ footsteps and go to college. They’re undeniable success stories for Arlington Public Schools (APS).
But not all boys are faring so well. National statistics show that boys are far more likely than girls to drop out of high school, be placed in special-education classes or be diagnosed with learning disabilities.
They’re also less likely to go to college. For more than a decade, males have comprised less than 50 percent of the student body at American colleges and universities, according to the American Council on Education. (The student body at Marymount University in Arlington is only 30 percent male, even though the school went fully coed in 1986. At nearby George Mason University, the student ratio is 48 percent male vs. 52 percent female.)
Boys are also in the minority among high school overachievers, as evidenced by Arlington’s class of 2013. This spring, girls graduating with advanced-studies diplomas outnumbered boys by a significant margin in Arlington (432 vs. 382, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education), even though boys comprised a larger share of all students attending APS high schools.
Girls also are more likely than boys to graduate from high school on time. And girls’ reading scores on standardized tests are consistently higher than boys’, from third grade on.
To the generation of women who have come of age since the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s—the era that ushered in Title IX and other reforms—this shift comes as something of a surprise. Aren’t girls the ones who need the resources to compete in our male-dominated society? Aren’t we still “reviving Ophelia” (referring to clinical psychologist Mary Pipher’s groundbreaking 1994 book about girls), bringing our daughters to work, and giving Barbie new, glass-ceiling-shattering professions? Could it really be that, in our collective quest to foster girl power, we’ve left the boys behind?
Not everyone has drawn this conclusion. According to a report from Education Sector, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., the so-called “crisis” with American boys is in fact “not bad news about boys doing worse; it’s good news about girls doing better.”
Boys are scoring higher on standardized tests than in years past, stresses the study’s author, Sara Mead, a senior fellow at the nonprofit. It’s just that girls’ scores have improved more dramatically, causing boys to appear weak by comparison. Mead also points out that while women now outnumber men at many U.S. colleges, the absolute number of males going to college continues to rise.
Others do not find this analysis reassuring. “When you have two-thirds of the Ds and Fs being earned by boys, and [boys representing] only 40 percent of [college students], you’ve got big trouble,” says Michael Gurian, co-author (with Kathy Stevens) of the 2005 book The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life. He’s also president and co-founder of the Gurian Institute in Colorado Springs, Colo., which performs research and teacher training on the differences in how boys and girls learn.
“The state test scores show boys are behind girls, [especially] in reading, writing and language arts. It’s absolutely a crisis, even though some people don’t want to call it that,” he says. “It’s getting worse, and it’s getting worse because we’re not dealing with it.”
Some contributing factors may be biological. Research suggests that boys’ and girls’ brains are wired differently in ways that could place boys at a disadvantage in our current educational system.
Neuroscientists have found, for example, that some parts of the brain, such as the frontal and temporal lobes where the “language centers” are housed, develop faster in girls than they do in boys—a difference that may give girls the edge in academic settings that push kids to read at an earlier age.
Girls’ brains are also better equipped for detailed memory storage, multitasking and other school-supporting endeavors.
Boys, by contrast, have more dopamine in their bloodstreams, which can be linked to impulsive behavior, and less oxytocin, which is tied to verbal communication. “Boys, with less oxytocin in the bloodstream and less verbal emphasis in the brain, don’t learn as much through sitting and talking, nor gravitate toward it naturally,” Gurian explains. Rather, they learn by doing.
Furthermore, a 2008 study out of Northwestern University and the University of Haifa, which used MRI technology to analyze the brain activity of both sexes, found that boys and girls rely on different parts of the brain when performing language tasks. (It also confirmed that the areas of the brain associated with language are generally more active in girls.) “Our findings—which suggest that language processing is more sensory in boys and more abstract in girls—could have major implications for teaching children…” Douglas Burman, a research associate in Northwestern’s Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, said in a news release.
But until those differences are institutionalized, boys whose earliest classroom experiences are frustrating and demoralizing may continue to develop negative associations with school that last a lifetime. As education writer Richard Whitmire, author of the 2010 book Why Boys Fail, observes: “The world has gotten more verbal; boys haven’t.”
Standardized test scores do seem to corroborate this theory. In Arlington Public Schools, test scores among third-graders in 2011-2012 showed girls outperforming boys in reading (with passage rates of 89 percent vs. 86 percent respectively), but boys besting the girls in math (78 percent, compared to 76 percent).
By fifth grade, however, girls surpassed boys in both reading and math, with 91 percent of girls passing the Standards of Learning (SOL) reading test (versus 88 percent of boys) and 85 percent of girls passing the SOL math test (versus 83 percent of boys). Some advanced-proficiency scores were even more pronounced, with girls scoring 11 percentage points higher than boys in reading and 18 percentage points higher in writing.
Falls Church City public schools have seen a similar trajectory, according to state figures. In 2011-2012, 99 percent of eighth-grade girls passed standardized reading tests vs. 93 percent of boys (although those numbers were flip-flopped in seventh-grade girls and boys, showing the fluidity of the data in any given year). Girls also topped boys in mathematics by eighth grade, 87 to 83 percent.
By high school, boys and girls in Falls Church City were divided along somewhat predictable lines—with girls doing better in reading and writing and boys doing better in sciences and history.
(Interestingly, history is one area in which girls tend to lag behind boys, even though it requires a heavy emphasis on reading. Boys’ success in this area may reflect what organizations like the National Women’s History Project say is a continuing lack of female stories in the historical record.)
Granted, with SOL-passing percentages in the 80s and 90s and near-parity between genders at many levels, Northern Virginia families might not have as much to worry about as those in less-educated and affluent jurisdictions. But the problem is very real to parents whose sons seem to be falling through the cracks or struggling just to keep pace with their peers.
Peg Tyre, a journalist and author of the 2008 book The Trouble with Boys, finds it somewhat alarming that boys and girls who start out with similar test scores tend to pull apart in just a few short years. By middle school, she observes, girls spend more time doing homework, and many more females than males are in the top 10 percent of their class. “Compared to girls, boys in every demographic are doing less well, when you do an apples-to-apples comparison, comparing poor boys to poor girls, middle-class boys to middle-class girls, and black boys to black girls,” she says.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1978, girls’ scores on standardized math tests averaged 7 percentage points behind boys’, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an ongoing research project at the National Center for Education Statistics.
By 2012—perhaps fueled by the push for girls to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math)—girls had pulled within 4 points of the boys in math.
Meanwhile, NAEP data from 2012 showed 17-year-old girls nationwide outscoring same-aged boys on standardized reading tests by 8 percentage points.
Have girls’ advances come at a cost to boys? Joann DiGennaro thinks so. As co-founder and president of the Center for Excellence in Education in McLean, an organization that promotes high-achieving students in STEM fields, she feels that boys have been taken for granted by an educational system that is too concerned with gender neutrality and political correctness.
“It’s time that attention be paid to boys’ needs, beginning in elementary school,” DiGennaro says. “Our teachers who are doing cookie-cutter instruction have to stop teaching in a gender-neutral way. That’s very hard to do in this environment. As much as we say students and populations share characteristics, they learn differently. They are different. Boys are being shortchanged in many ways.”
Jennifer Davies, a Fairlington resident and mother to a 6-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, has already seen the gender distinctions playing out in her son’s classroom at Abingdon Elementary. “In my son’s current school, he loves math and sciences,” she says. “He considers language arts ‘boring’ and tunes out. It is unclear to me whether this is based on lack of achievement or interest, or whether he does not derive the same pleasure of learning and accomplishment when practicing letters or reading. I have observed that many of the advanced readers and writers in his class are girls.”
Davies wishes the school would consider creating a “language arts lab” in the same way it has math, science and computer labs, which might encourage more experimentation and hands-on learning to better engage boys like her son.
“I do think that girls can fit into a school environment more easily than boys,” says Jane Scruggs, an ESL specialist at Williamsburg Middle School and a former elementary school teacher in both APS and Latin America. “We girls—most of us—don’t mind sitting still, we like to please our teachers, and most of us genuinely like to learn. Many boys, on the other hand, have a harder time sitting still and controlling impulses.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, Gurian sees it as an example of where our present-day educational model may be failing boys. “What everyone loves about teaching boys is their energy,” he says. “That’s the stuff we have to innovatively bring out… The teachers can be trained on how to see that energy as a positive and, as we bring the positives out of them, we curtail the negative discipline referrals.”
Making generalizations about boys’ and girls’ innate characteristics may come uncomfortably close, for some, to gender stereotyping of the “frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails” variety. But Ann Dolin, who visits dozens of local schools every year, says she has plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the distinctions. As founder and president of the Fairfax-based tutoring company Educational Connections Inc. and author of the forthcoming book, A Parent’s Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland Edition (due out in September), she says boys, more often than not, are the ones who are tuning out and not paying attention in class. Of the 1,155 students in the D.C. metro area that her firm worked with in 2012, 62 percent were boys.
Part of the problem is that by middle school, most of the learning is auditory, Dolin says, even though evidence suggests that boys do better when they’re learning kinesthetically—that is, when they’re moving around.
And yet boys are more likely to be reprimanded or punished if they’re out of their seats, creating a no-win, no-learn situation. It doesn’t help that many schools are cutting back on recess to devote more time to meeting state academic requirements.
Gurian attributes the current gender achievement gap, in part, to the “learning factory” approach that has dominated education since the Industrial Revolution. Before that, he asserts, boys performed more apprentice-like roles in society—learning from a broader family or village network (not just a schoolteacher) as well as working with their hands and moving and using their bodies regularly at work and play.
Nobody wants society to move backward, of course, but it’s possible that, with progress, something essential to boys’ development has been lost.
The fact that most teachers are women may pose yet another sticking point for boys. While female teachers have been wonderful guideposts since the dawn of formal education, at least one study by economist Thomas Dee (and cited by Peg Tyre) has suggested that female teachers can’t always escape an intrinsic gender bias in the classroom.
This bias may come out in subtle ways, such as through the texts they choose. For example, teachers who assign The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett may attract legions of girls who will sigh over the book for years. But to the boys, the same text may be less than riveting. Allow them to read a graphic novel, or a nonfiction book about history, or that divine gift to boys’ (and girls’) literacy, Harry Potter, and the results could be very different. Tyre calls it “less Brontë, more Bond.”
Nevertheless, with few men choosing careers in education, the dearth of male role models is likely to continue. Those who do enter the field often end up leaving it for better-paying jobs, or being promoted to administrative roles, typically over their female peers. Today, males comprise only 18 percent of elementary and middle school teachers, but 41 percent of elementary school principals, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics. At the secondary-school level, men account for 42 percent of teachers but a whopping 72 percent of principals.
In Arlington, only three of the county’s 22 public elementary school principals are men, but all four public high schools are headed by male principals.
Danielle Werchowsky, a Courthouse-area resident whose son, Benjamin, is in fifth grade at Drew Model School, wishes APS would address the gender disparities more directly.
“The books that the teachers choose are all from a female perspective, because 90 percent of the [elementary] teachers are female,” she says. “For me as a parent, it’s troubling that APS hasn’t broken down the data to show parents how boys and girls are doing. I think there’s a difference. And if there isn’t, why don’t they show us that?”
Arlington Public Schools may not have any formal initiatives that focus on boys’ learning styles, but teachers say they are well aware of the need to keep boys engaged and moving, whatever the instructional model.
“Boys tend to be more disruptive than girls when they’re disconnected from the source material,” observes Julie Carter (not her real name), a teacher at an Arlington public middle school who asked to use a pseudonym. “They act out. So choice is very important. There might be a common educational rubric but I try to let them choose the way they come at it. I might talk for the first five minutes and then move them into groups or have them work with a partner. If you don’t have them do that, the fallout is much more obvious with boys.”
Of course there's another potential solution to the challenge of teaching boys and girls together—and that’s to not do it at all.
Could single-sex classrooms hold the key to gender parity when it comes to academic performance?
Organizations like the National Association for Choice in Education (formerly the National Association for Single Sex Public Education) believe so. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education amended federal regulations to allow boys and girls in public schools to be separated for academic classes other than gym and sex education, a ruling that now has several public school systems across the country piloting single-sex classes.
Last October, then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Sen. Barbara Mikulski endorsed the idea in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. “As studies have confirmed—and as any parent can tell you—negative gender roles are often sharpened in coeducational environments,” the senators wrote. “Boys are more likely, for instance, to buy into the notion that reading isn’t masculine when they’re surrounded by (and showing off for) girls. Girls, meanwhile…still lag in the acquisition of bachelor’s and graduate degrees in math and the sciences. It has been demonstrated time and again that young girls are more willing to ask and answer questions in classrooms without boys.”
One finds this philosophy in practice at Trinity School at Meadow View, a private school in Falls Church that serves both boys and girls in grades 7 through 12, but divides them into single-gender classes for instruction. “You feel a lot more free when you’re just with guys,” a boy named Eddie says in a promotional video on the school’s website. “It frees you up to learn better, because you ask the questions you wouldn’t normally ask for fear of being made fun of.”
But the concept of gender-segregated classrooms also has its share of detractors, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues that single-sex classrooms only reinforce gender stereotypes to the detriment of all.
Either way, the model isn’t likely to be tested anytime soon in Arlington Public Schools. For now, school officials say that there is not a wide-enough disparity between boys and girls to indicate that they should be taught separately.
“We did some research several years ago and determined that there were no significant trends or gaps that would warrant a restructuring of our system,” says Connie Skelton, assistant superintendent, instruction, for APS. “Our approach…of differentiated instruction focusing on best practices while providing a variety of supports and services for all students, particularly struggling students, serves us well.”
Still, experts like DiGennaro think that schools could be doing more to prevent the current generation of boys from disengaging and losing momentum. She sees it as a competitive imperative in an increasingly global society.
“The bureaucracy has grown so substantially and parents have been so intimidated and teachers are so concerned about their own careers,” she says. “But parents and teachers have to take a stand about this. They have to be active. Something has to jar the citizens to look more carefully at the gender issue and ensure that more equity is given to the male population.”
Whether or when the pendulum will swing back remains to be seen.
Until then, how many more bright boys will be marginalized and misunderstood?
Today's standardized test scores suggest that girls have an academic edge, but this may not be a mere case of superior intelligence or motivated girls versus unmotivated boys. Could it be that current standardized tests fail to measure some of the strengths that come naturally to boys?
A new test being piloted by the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) could be telling. Starting in 2014, all eighth-graders nationwide will take the NAEP technology and engineering literacy (TEL) assessment, which seeks to gauge students' understanding of engineering principles. The interactive online test will challenge students to solve engineering problems using real-life scenarios.
Created, in part, to "support America's ability to contribute to and compete in a global economy," this test will eventually be administered to students in grades 4 and 12 as well.
Of course, how this particular battle of the sexes will play out remains to be seen. Boys have historically done well in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, but it's also an arena in which girls have made considerable strides in recent years. As evidence, look no further than outer space; four of the eight members of NASA’s newest incoming class of astronauts are women, the highest percentage in the space agency’s history.
For more information, visit nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/tel/
Kim O’Connell is a freelance writer and Aurora Highlands resident whose 7-year-old son loves to read—especially books about Star Wars, history and sports. She hopes to keep it that way.