Saturday, March 02, 2013

Public School and Boys

Yesterday I wrote What Boys Hear Growing Up.  In its preface I mentioned that how true all those messages was not the point.

But because I am a math teacher one detail deserves some follow-up on my blog.

Is it true that public school is somehow harder for or unfair to boys?

Yes and no.  That is unintentionally a somewhat misleading question.

Back in 2000 an important article was written entitled The War Against Boys.  In many ways it should have been entitled Public School Teaches to the Middle.  Here is a very important quotation:
Scores on almost any intelligence or achievement test are more spread out for boys than for girls—boys include more prodigies and more students of marginal ability. Or, as the political scientist James Q. Wilson once put it, "There are more male geniuses and more male idiots."

Boys also dominate dropout lists, failure lists, and learning-disability lists. Students in these groups rarely take college-admissions tests. On the other hand, the exceptional boys who take school seriously show up in disproportionately high numbers for standardized tests. Gender-equity activists like Sadker ought to apply their logic consistently: if the shortage of girls at the high end of the ability distribution is evidence of unfairness to girls, then the excess of boys at the low end should be deemed evidence of unfairness to boys.
A lot has changed since 2000.  It remains true that boys still disproportionately populate the bottom and top of the curve, and girls tend to cluster in the middle of the curve.

Unsurprisingly, a public school system whose content focuses on average children does not do well educating the bottom of the curve.  This disproportionately hurts boys, but the only alternative is to change the entire system away from classrooms segregated by age with a factory-like pedagogy.

Public schools are actually doing pretty well.  Do we really want to scrap a working system?  Do we really think a new system will somehow not create its own type of least-served student—who would probably still be the lowest performing boys?

The obvious follow-up question is why the students at the bottom of the curve are stuck there.  Perhaps we can help them?

I cannot find any answers involving very recent research.  Please help me if you can!  I know that No Child Left Behind has changed public schools drastically, and created many new attempts to help the children at the bottom of the curve.

Teachers do appear to have a small grading bias against boys, but this would not push students way down to the bottom of the curve.  It is wrong and needs fixing, but is a comparatively minor problem.

Much more significant is how some boys simply disqualify themselves.  Page 21 of this 2006 study concludes that:
Boys have a much higher incidence than do girls of school disciplinary and behavior problems, and spend far fewer hours doing homework (Jacob, 2002). Controlling for these noncognitive behavioral factors can explain virtually the entire female advantage in college attendance for the high school graduating class of 1992, after adjusting for family background, test scores, and high school achievement. Similarly, our own analysis of the 1979 and 1997 NLSY samples shows that teenage boys, both in the early 1980s and late 1990s, had a higher (self-reported) incidence of arrests and school suspension than teenage girls and that controls for such measures of behavioral problems significantly attenuate the female college advantage. Boys have two to three times the rate of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) than girls and much higher rates of criminal activity (Cuffe, Moore, and McKeown, 2003; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2004). Boys are also much more likely than girls to be placed in special education programs.12 The source of boys' higher incidence of behavioral problems is an area of active research and could be due to their later maturation as well as their higher rates of impatience (Silverman, 2003).
Another unsurprising result: public schools do not do well educating students who ignore homework, are suspended, or are arrested.  To me this seems a parenting problem, not an educational problem.  Many studies have shown that the increase in single-parent families is especially problematic to boys for these very reasons.

Here is an interesting pair of contrasting opinions about single-sex classrooms in public schools.  I think both authors are partially correct.  For most children there is no need to have different classrooms for boys and girls.  But for the boys at the bottom of the curve this is probably the simplest and most effective fix for a school district to attempt.

The other side of the coin is to avoid the message that because girls cluster in the middle of the curve being "like a girl" is the way for boys to be normal.

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