The boys on the bus

Several years ago my son – who was then a student in my AP Government class – informed me that I was a “boy teacher.”

Since his very existence suggested that he’d gotten  my gender wrong, I asked him what he could possibly mean. As I suspected, his appellation had nothing to do with the gender of the teacher; indeed, he argued that lots of male teachers were “girl teachers.” What my son was trying to say, instead, was that some teachers felt much more comfortable with what he considered “girl” behaviors. These included sitting still, knowing when to shut up, staying focused, and complying with the rules. “Boy teachers”, apparently, tolerate more disorder and maybe encourage more activity.

My son assured me that he was giving me a compliment . . . and I rather suspect he was also trying to excuse his own sometimes disorderly behavior. Then again, maybe he was hinting that I needed to improve my classroom management. At any rate, his comments resonated with a book I’d recently read by AEI scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, entitled The War Against Boys.

This weekend Dr. Sommers published a follow-up article in The New York Times: “The Boys at the Back.” Her thesis, highly controversial when she first published her book, is now widely accepted. It’s hard to ignore the data.

Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college. Why?

Dr. Summers cites a new study about to come out in the Journal of Human Resources:

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.

No previous study, to my knowledge, has demonstrated that the well-known gender gap in school grades begins so early and is almost entirely attributable to differences in behavior. The researchers found that teachers rated boys as less proficient even when the boys did just as well as the girls on tests of reading, math and science. (The teachers did not know the test scores in advance.) If the teachers had not accounted for classroom behavior, the boys’ grades, like the girls’, would have matched their test scores.

I recommend the article, including its description of at least one school that seems to be bucking this trend by unabashedly playing to what it perceives as boys’ strengths, and learning styles:

As our schools have become more feelings-centered, risk-averse, collaboration-oriented and sedentary, they have moved further and further from boys’ characteristic sensibilities.

Just one more personal story.  Military history has almost disappeared from textbooks, and it seldom if ever shows up on Advanced Placement history texts. Since I’m interested in military history, I always tried to squeeze in a little time in the always hurried AP curriculum. So, for example, my AP European History students spent a day studying the Battle of Austerlitz, since I thought it was impossible to understand Napoleon without examining his military as well as political leadership.

A side benefit was that the boys always woke up that day. I remember one student coming up to me and saying, “I didn’t know we could talk about that stuff in school.”

And I don’t see why not.


One comment

  1. Yak_Herder

    The recirculation of ideas in education never seems to end. Witness, once again, the pendulum swing.

    Folks in Edwardian England were worried about the rising generation and doubted in their ability to maintain or even defend their way of life. At the same time, a man retired from a life of renowned military service, was considering what he would do for a second career. He remembered his own experience at school (a restrictive and overly-structured classroom). Maybe still chafing at that a bit, he devised a “scheme” (his term) for building the character and skills he felt were important in the young men of the day who would soon be the leaders of the nation.

    What he came up with was a rough and tumble, experiential, practical, and highly effective method. It flat out worked and spread with remarkable speed across the globe.

    That method was Scouting and the man was Baden-Powell.

    Without getting into the current politics and changes under consideration, today’s program is in many ways quite different from the one he introduced. I see a lot of parallels.

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