At last June's graduation at Franklin High School just outside of Milwaukee, three of the four students who tied for valedictorian were girls. Among the National Honor Society members, 76% were girls. And girls comprised 85% of the students on Franklin's 4.0 honor roll.
The superintendent of schools for this upper-middle-class suburb, Gerald Freitag, investigated those numbers after the parents of a boy filed a complaint. He found that the skewed performances by gender at Franklin pretty much mirror the imbalances across the state — and the nation.
This week, teachers at the middle school feeding into Franklin received training on how to reach out to boys. And high school teachers will continue the gender-sensitivity classes they began last school year.
But reversing the trend will not be easy. In classrooms nationwide, girls are pulling ahead of boys academically. Recent federal testing data show that what starts out as a modest gap in elementary-level reading scores turns into a yawning divide by high school. In 12th grade, 44% of girls rate as proficient readers on federal tests, compared with 28% of boys. And while boys still score slightly higher on federal math and science exams, their advantage is slipping.
Most startling is that little is being done to correct the imbalances. All of the major players — schools, education colleges and researchers — largely ignore the gender gap. Instead of pursuing sound solutions, many educators merely advocate prescribing more attention-focusing Ritalin for the boys, who receive the drug at four to eight times the rate of girls, according to different estimates. "Too often the first reaction to an attention problem is 'Let's medicate,' " says Rockville, Md., child psychologist Neil Hoffman. "Some schools are quick to recommend solutions before they've fully evaluated the problem."
Playing to girls' strengths
One reason boys are losing academic ground to girls appears linked to a shift by schools to more word-based learning for which girls' brains are believed to have an advantage. Over the years, even math problems have become more word oriented, according to education researchers. But because schools are doing little to help boys adjust, males risk becoming second-class academic citizens. Already the academic success girls enjoy in high school translates into more college acceptances — 56% of the students on campuses are female.
The full impact from this shift is something society has yet to discover. But a drop in earnings for males is one likely result. Workers with only a high school diploma earn $20,000 a year less than those with a bachelor's degree.
One fact explains why educators are ignoring boys' needs: You can't address a problem that you don't admit exists. The U.S. Department of Education concedes that no serious research is available comparing different instructional methods that might help boys. In fact, many education researchers are hostile toward research aimed at exploring gender differences in learning.
Last April, when Kenneth Dragseth, superintendent of schools in Edina, Minn., presented a paper describing his district's gender gap at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting in Chicago, he says the reception ranged from chilly to hostile. Female education researchers in the audience questioned whether helping boys would mean hurting girls.
Their attitude follows years of lobbying by groups such as the American Association of University Women, which alerted educators to the fact that girls were being shortchanged academically in the fields of math and science. The extra attention helped focus schools on girls' difficulties, but it has made it too easy for educators to overlook the problems of boys. Among them:
•Boys and girls learn differently. The best research on boy-girl learning differences is produced more by accident than by design. The lack of data in this field can hurt girls as much as boys. For instance, as part of an ongoing 20-year dyslexia study focusing on Connecticut schools, Yale neuroscientist and pediatrician Sally Shaywitz discovered that schools were identifying four times as many dyslexic boys as girls. Yet when her team entered schools to screen children, it diagnosed just as many dyslexic girls as boys. Shaywitz found that the mostly female teaching staff was quicker to identify rambunctious boys than quiet girls.
The results are just one example of what might be learned about the role gender plays in education, especially in elementary school, where 85% of teachers are women.
• Future teachers aren't trained to deal with learning differences. Therapist Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently!, has visited more than 100 education colleges. But he has not found one that offers courses on male-female brain differences. His discovery explains why many new teachers arrive in classrooms clueless about what teaching techniques might work best for boys' learning styles.
• Boys lack advocates. The special efforts made by schools to steer more girls into advanced math and science classes came after powerful advocacy groups embraced the problem. But Gurian and other advocates for boys say they run into resistance from educators who point to males' success in the workforce as proof that advocacy for boys is unnecessary.
In spite of the lack of research, anecdotal evidence shows that far more effective strategies are available for teaching boys than plying them with Ritalin. Patricia Henley runs a boy-friendly charter school in Kansas that hires many male teachers. It also recognizes boys' natural tendency to favor active learning by conducting more class work on the chalkboard and allowing more student movement within the classroom. And the school trains teachers to deal with boys' particular styles. For instance, because boys volunteer answers more slowly than girls do, teachers are told to count to 10 before calling on a student.
Beginning in the early 1990s, groups such as the American Association of University Women performed an important service by alerting the public to an educational failing. Their persistence helped convince educators that schools were ignoring important problems plaguing girls, such as the loss of self-esteem among middle school girls who had been successful students throughout elementary school.
Today's education system fails many boys. They deserve the same kind of attention to address why they are losing ground.
[Via USA Today]