Boys are being shortchanged in schools. How can we fix this?
Twenty years ago in a faculty meeting at a prominent women’s college, faculty members were discussing a current report called “How Schools Shortchange Girls.” It recounted the many ways in which boys were favored over girls in our schools. One of us, a faculty member at the time, rose to point out that while this was a very real issue, in fact boys were also being shortchanged. We needed, he said, to attend to the ways in which both sexes suffered under gender discrimination and patriarchy. A palpable tension rose in the room. The idea that boys might also be victims of an unjust gender system was still unfamiliar to many and unwelcome to some.
Over the intervening years, although contemporary education reform has ostensibly been gender-neutral, the effort to bring girls up to speed in math and science has been enormously successful, while boys have fallen further and further behind by almost every other measure. Thus, while the feminist movement has wrought welcome change—the wage gap between the sexes has shrunk dramatically, women have far more diverse career choices, and the number of women in the professions and public leadership has ballooned—its work remains largely unfinished. We believe that completing the vital work starts with acknowledging how patriarchy has also discriminated against boys, inhibiting their performance in schools by enforcing the “boy code,” discouraging boys from valuing reading and writing, hindering their ability to learn empathy, and distorting their emotional development in myriad ways.
For instance, the gap favoring girls’ verbal skills is far greater than that favoring boys’ math/science skills. Boys are diagnosed with ADHD much more than girls, are more likely to drop out or commit suicide, are disciplined far more often, and go to jail and commit violent crimes at rates that eclipse girls. Additionally, despite claims to the contrary, schools have historically been better fitted to girls who mature faster than boys, are willing to sit still longer, and have generally been more readily tractable. Until recently, the limited expectations and high value placed on compliance for girls in our culture kept them in their places, but as these fall away, girls are surging ahead while boys, discouraged, all too often are simply giving up on school as a way to achieve recognition. In effect, we have put boys and girls more directly in competition while rigging the system to favor the girls.
Unless boys can find success in athletics, in the classroom, or with girls, they are far more likely than girls to end up “losers”. And, given our male propensity to arrange ourselves in pecking orders, to be at the bottom of the pile can create lifelong scars which further perpetuate the abuses of patriarchal, über-male behaviors.
As boys grow to manhood, their post-secondary options appear to be waning as well. One study of educational aspiration indicated that just over half of the boys sampled planned to go to four-year college while two thirds of the girls did. It seems that guys no longer even aspire to college at the same rate as women, let alone qualify academically. Already the female-male ratio is 60-40, and within a few years, two out of every three college graduates will be women. Denied, or failing to see, a viable path to responsible adulthood, increasing numbers of boys are turning instead to video games, drugs, or crime. Just as we earlier squandered the contributions that females could make to society, we are now at risk of losing the positive values that males bring. Too few boys are becoming the “good men” that a world of equality and justice requires.
So how do we become the kind of men the world needs in the twenty-first century? The work of re-defining the meanings of gender is a primary work for all of us at every age, but one place it must begin is in our schools.
Here are seven steps that we can take now for starters.
1. Emphasize community. Schools must be caring communities that value and cultivate belonging, common focus, and personal agency. Perspective-taking, empathy, and an ethic of care will be important to ensure that an authentic climate of mutual respect and equality is fostered between and within the sexes. Human development is predicated on our interdependence, and schools must be healthy communities where young people feel the support and nurture of others, and learn how to be part of a greater whole.
2. Promote universal early learning. We can help boys (and girls) by making schools more developmentally appropriate for boys, starting with early learning. Boys are generally slower to mature than girls, entering school a year or more behind girls developmentally. The kinds of skills valued in Kindergarten (and now preschool) are tougher for boys to master than for girls, and are being demanded at earlier ages than ever before. If special encouragement for girls in math and science is appropriate, then surely such encouragement for boys in verbal skills (where the gender spread is much greater) is in order for boys, with a particular emphasis on Pre-school to Grade 3 programs. This means emphasizing not just the first two Rs but also social/emotional learning, a language-rich environment in which boys can learn to name their complex feelings more fully, and opportunities to practice the kinds of executive control needed to reduce impulsive and violent behavior.
3. Differentiate instruction with an eye on gender differences. Classroom teachers are making great gains in instructional strategies by individualizing curriculum and instruction. These efforts have flourished from a growing body of research on assessment and instruction that guides us to understand students academically and personally to design more effective learning experiences. These efforts to differentiate also need to consider gender-based patterns of learning and preferences so that better instruction might include activities in groups that account for sex differences. Pre-service and in-service training should focus on increasing teacher awareness of the relationship between learning and gender.
4. Segregate by gender, at least part time. We do not necessarily advocate entirely separate education for the sexes. We believe that a realistic understanding and rapport between boys and girls is essential for the kinds of teamwork and partnership that will be required in the future. But there are very real benefits to be gained by both girls and boys through some periods of the day spent solely and consciously with members of their own sex.
5. Rebalance the teaching force. Fewer than two out of ten elementary school teachers are men. Even in high school, only four of ten are male. Ironically, this actually represents a loss of several percentage points over recent decades. And yet some evidence suggests that boys may tend to perform better in classrooms with male teachers at the younger ages. We must explore ways to attract more good men to teaching at all levels, especially elementary school, including improved mentoring for new teachers as well as more vigorous recruiting and more creative retention practices.
7. Re-imagine the sports culture to emphasize the positive values of competition and teamwork in light of a larger societal drive to win at any cost. The sports culture has sanctioned heartbreaking levels of hazing and violence among our young people. The old values of sportsmanship, character, and school spirit still have a vital place on our playing fields, and we must encourage our coaches to see themselves as the mentors and purveyors of positive values that they are.
The contributions of feminist awareness have been enormous in bringing about a historically unprecedented degree of respect and equality between the sexes in the western democracies. Feminism is absolutely not to blame for the struggles boys and men are now experiencing, but the gender revolution begun by feminists forty years ago will not be complete until men and women mutually acknowledge our complementary differences as well as our fundamental equality and work together to redefine what it means to be full partners in the century that now faces us. Casting solutions to our education woes in the context of feminism—redefining masculinity, gender roles and identity, and teaching boys how to become good men—is both a rational and radical way to better schooling for all.
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