Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Are Our Schools Biased Against Boys?

There are several recent books that warn—or threaten—that women are going to take control of the economy and all else because evolution has made them better adapted to the current demands of our society. Men therefore are falling behind and they are not likely to ever catch up. The data that is quoted most often in support of this notion is based on academic achievement. Girls, in fact, do better in school. Their graduation rates at all levels are higher than for males with the possible exception of doctorates where it is still close.

Since much of the evidence for this growing female dominance comes from our school systems, it seemed worthwhile to consider whether there were elements of our educational process that could be contributing to a bias in favor of girls over boys.

While schools are often viewed as an equalizer between students from different economic and social classes, they are quite capable of creating and propagating inequality in educational outcomes. In Education and the Propagation of Inequality we discussed how social and economic factors create biases in educational performance. In Birth Date, Education, Ability Grouping, and Accomplishment we discussed how the age of a child at the beginning of school can produce a performance bias that persists up to at least the university level, and perhaps beyond.

When a child begins school at the age of five, it will be in an age segregated group in which the ages will vary from five to six based on birth date. That means that some children will be 20% older than others, and likely to be proportionately more mature and more capable of performing in a school environment. Unless the education system is very careful, this early advantage will be accentuated by teacher encouragement, and the assignment of better teachers, and more demanding courses.

Could there be a similar bias that operates on the basis of sex rather than birth date? Consider input from Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. She has written an interesting book called Proust and the Squid: The Story and the Science of the Reading Brain. Performance in school in areas such as reading requires the brain to be capable of integrating complex audio and visual data and interpreting it. Wolf tells us that it isn’t until about age five that the brain matures to the point where it is capable of that.
"Although each of the sensory and motor regions is myelinated and functions independently before a person is five years of age, the principle regions of the brain that underlie our ability to integrate visual, verbal, and auditory information rapidly—like the angular gyrus—are not fully myelinated in most humans until five years of age and after."

So we are starting our children in school and measuring and rewarding their accomplishments at a time when some are physically less mature than others, even at the same age. How does this relate to gender differences?

Wolf claims that girls mature faster than boys and begin to read earlier. She further states that she has observed perceptual differences between the two sexes up to about age eight.

So, boys beginning school will, on the average, be disadvantaged with respect to girls, and that bias towards girls is likely to be propagated throughout their educational experience. The way to avoid this is by not grouping by ability until the maturation differences are left well behind. Some school systems with high performance on standardized tests, such as in Finland, forbid ability grouping until a much higher age.

Now we have boys and girls progressing through the various grades. Are there other factors at work?

Everyone is aware that boys tend to be more restless, and need more physical activity than girls. Girls are better adapted to situations that require sitting still and listening for long periods than are boys. This means that the two sexes interact with the teacher differently, with girls being easier to deal with. Could this be a source of educational bias? Christina Hoff Sommers and some researchers at the University of Georgia and at Columbia University certainly believe it is.

Sommers produced an article for the New York Times in which she discussed various ways in which education can be biased against boys. Consider the results of one study.

"Teachers of classes as early as kindergarten factor good behavior into grades - and girls, as a rule, comport themselves far better than boys."

"The study's authors analyzed data from more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that boys across all racial groups and in all major subject areas received lower grades than their test scores would have predicted."

"The scholars attributed this "misalignment" to differences in "noncognitive skills": attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys."

The claim is that the data shows teachers will reward "good" behavior (girls) with better grades, and punish "poor" behavior (boys) with lower grades.

Sommers points out that teacher bias is not the only problem that has developed for boys.

"....boy-averse trends like the decline of recess, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, the tendency to criminalize minor juvenile misconduct and the turn away from single-sex schooling. As our schools have become more feelings-centered, risk-averse, collaboration-oriented and sedentary, they have moved further and further from boys' characteristic sensibilities."

Sommers also reports that other nations have identified underachieving boys as a problem and have taken steps to try to correct the situation.

"WHAT might we do to help boys improve? For one thing, we can follow the example of the British, the Canadians and the Australians. They have openly addressed the problem of male underachievement. They are not indulging boys' tendency to be inattentive. Instead, they are experimenting with programs to help them become more organized, focused and engaged. These include more boy-friendly reading assignments (science fiction, fantasy, sports, espionage, battles); more recess (where boys can engage in rough-and-tumble as a respite from classroom routine); campaigns to encourage male literacy; more single-sex classes; and more male teachers (and female teachers interested in the pedagogical challenges boys pose)."

Females may be in the ascendency, but victory should not be ceded to them until we have done more to level the playing field.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "The War Against Boys."

1 comment:

  1. That’s a good solution right there. An underachievement in the male population is indeed present here in our country and we should really try to improve that as well. This way we are not just prioritizing a certain gender, but exploring the potentials of each child in a non-sexist way. I do agree in the idea that we adapt the British way of education. And in the long run, who knows? Maybe this will help reduce some of our sex crimes as well.
    Vesta Duvall


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