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Paying Attention to the Gender Gap

Tingley-021 colorWhen noted children’s author Bruce Coville visited my school, he talked enthusiastically and humorously about how to interest kids in reading.  At one point, however, he stopped to seriously consider whether the typical elementary classroom was as comfortable an environment for boys as it was for girls. 

A former elementary teacher himself, Coville suggested that perhaps one of the reasons that boys seemed less interested in reading is that since most teachers at the elementary level are female, boys saw reading as a female pursuit.  They rarely saw men – either at school or at home – reading for pleasure.  In addition, he cautioned, elementary teachers often value the ability of their students to sit still, something girls seemed better able to do.  In an environment that values conformity and compliance, boys probably aren’t going to do as well as girls.

Teachers, he said, needed to choose books that both boys and girls would want to read.  Girls are much more likely to read so-called “boys’ books” than vice versa.  I knew from my own experience that he was right.

As an elementary principal who was never an elementary teacher, I often wondered why so many teachers seemed to prize sitting a certain way on the rug, raising your hand before you speak, moving silently though the halls.  And I had often heard teachers try to reinforce compliant behaviors with, “I like the way Shawna is listening quietly” or “I like the way Mary has her desk cleared off.”  No boy, I thought, would want to be singled out for that kind of behavior.

Boys and girls in schoolSo it comes as no surprise that The Journal of Human Resources will publish this week research that indicates teachers tend to factor behavior into academic grades.  As girls tend to exhibit persistence, self-control, and the ability to work independently earlier than boys, girls tend to get better grades in school although boys score as well on standardized tests according to the research.

In her essay, “The Boys at the Back,” author Christina Hoff Sommers (The War Against Boys) argues that schools need to focus on boys’ progress now just as they did on girls’ progress in the 90s.  While I think that her book presents a rather  overblown thesis, there is much evidence that girls have surged ahead of boys in terms of high school graduation rates, college attendance, and admittance to graduate and professional schools.  And I heartily agree with Sommers when she points out that the success of girls shouldn’t depend on lack of success for boys.  The fact that girls and women were discriminated against in the past (and in the workplace still today) doesn’t mean that today’s men and boys have to pay for it.

Sommers suggests that we follow the example of the British, the Canadians, and the Australians in addressing underachieving male students.  Schools in these countries, she says, have put in place programs to help boys become better organized and more focused.  As Bruce Coville suggested earlier, the schools’ curriculum includes more readings to engage boys – science fiction, sports, etc.  Besides recruiting more male teachers, they work to help female teachers understand and respond to the particular pedagogical challenges boys present.

There is no question that the nation’s success and prosperity depends on developing the potential of all of our students.  Interestingly enough, most of the suggestions for improving boys’ achievement – a wider range of reading assignments, more time for physical activity like recess and gym, greater tolerance for individual behavior and learning choices – would benefit girls as well.



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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.