The Feminization Of
Our Schools - Boys Pay
A Heavy Price
By Celeste Fremon
Special To MSNBC
"Boys are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) nearly 10 times as often as girls..."
When my son first told me he had been punished for running on the playground of his Southern California elementary school, I figured he was exaggerating. What school would forbid running at recess? There had to be more to the story. But I learned that the school had recently instituted a no-running policy because, as the principal informed me in vaguely judgmental tones, "Kids could get hurt " as if such an explanation should be unnecessary to the truly caring parent.
Why do so many educators fail to perceive the exuberant future inventor I believe my son to be and see instead only an annoyingly rowdy boy?
The 'No Running' issue followed on the heels of another incident in which my son, whose name is Will, was nearly suspended from school for jumping over a bench. Apparently this was the second such infraction. "He knows that jumping over benches is against the rules, so this constitutes defiance, the principal said.
I will be the first to agree that teachers must keep order, and Will has always been an active kid " a climber of trees, a hopper of benches, a wiggler. When he,s sad, he is most likely to comfort himself by banging loudly on his drums or teaching himself a new trick on his skateboard. However, he,s also a kind, extremely bright boy who doesn't get into fights, designs whiz-bang projects for the yearly science fair, and scores in the 97th percentile or above on those standardized tests schools give each spring.
Red flags in the classroom Your child says he hates school. You're always being told that your kid is a behavior problem. More boys than girls are getting in trouble in class. Question the teacher even if your child is not the one having problems.
Source: Judith Kleinfeld, William Pollack.
Yet throughout much of his academic career (Will is now an 8th grader), I,ve found myself called in for conferences by frowning teachers and administrators. His handwriting is messy, they say gravely. He fidgets during English, when he should be taking notes. And he put his cap on while still inside the classroom. In my darker moments, I wonder what's wrong with me as a mother that so many of the educators with whom Will comes in contact fail to perceive the exuberant future inventor I believe him to be and see instead only an annoyingly rowdy boy. Worse, I fear that my smart kid is in danger of turning off to academics altogether " and I,m not sure what to do about it.
However, I,ve learned my son is not alone in his experience.
A decade ago, parents were worried about the way schools were treating their daughters. The issue first came to prominence in the 1980s, when David M. Sadker, a professor of education at American University, published a study indicating that, in the classroom, teachers paid more attention to boys than to girls and boys achieved higher grades as a result. Sadker,s findings were reinforced in the early 1990s by Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan, who reported that upon puberty, girls began to worry about conforming to male-determined societal stereotypes of female behavior and started to lose their self-esteem. According to Gilligan, this self-devaluation " which teachers often unconsciously perpetuated " caused girls to lose their internal compasses during middle and high school, at which point they replaced their emerging true identities with false ones.
Know your son's school life
Talk to your son about what he thinks is going on at school both in the
classroom and outside it.
Engage your son's teachers and administrators in conversation about gender
issues. Create honest talk about what is good for boys and girls both,
rather than blaming either gender.
Encourage your local elementary school to allow more activity in the early
grades ask for three recess periods instead
of one.
Suggestions from psychologists Judith Kleinfeld, Michael Thompson, Dan Kindlon, and William Pollack
The idea that education favored one gender over another became a particularly hot topic in 1992, after the American Association of University Women released its much-publicized study, "How Schools Shortchange Girls. The AAUW report was dramatic in its contention that female students suffered in terms of both grades and self-esteem at the hands of an academic environment that was unfairly skewed toward males.
Now, as the century draws to a close, it appears that the pendulum may have swung in the other direction. The feminist revolution of the 1970s is finally paying dividends for female students. Girls are beginning to thrive. Boys, however, seem to be drifting into ever deeper water when it comes to education.
Boys and girls show little difference in terms of native intelligence and aptitude, according to the 1997 Educational Testing Service (ETS) survey of data from more than 400 different tests. Girls are superior in terms of language and writing, and boys tend to score higher in spatial and mathematics skills. Taken together, these gender-based advantages tend to cancel each other out. When it comes to grades and performance, however, the picture changes. "It's my job to look at trends, says Providence College sociologist Cornelius Riordan, "and according to the research, boys are not flourishing. They are simply not doing well at all.
According to the U.S. Department of Education,s 1995 Condition of Education Report, girls have all but caught up to boys in math and science, but boys lag behind girls in reading and writing proficiency, a gap that is "roughly equivalent to about one and a half years of schooling. Among the alarming statistics from other studies: Fewer boys than girls are going on to college. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year 69 percent of female high school graduates pursued higher degrees vs. 62 percent of male grads. This year, girls are expected to earn 57 percent of all bachelor,s degrees.
The number of boys seeking higher degrees has also dropped drastically. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 1995-1996 56 percent of the nation,s master,s degrees went to girls.
As early as 1992, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) found that girls outnumbered boys in extracurricular academic activities, such as honor societies and student government.
And in 1998-,99, boys took fewer Advanced Placement tests than girls, 45 percent to 55 percent, according to the NCES.
While there is still a top layer of high-performing boy academic stars, many more male students than previously thought are bottoming out. Here are some of the statistics:
Boys are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) nearly 10 times as often as girls, reports a 1997 article in American Psychologist.
Boys outnumber girls in special education classes, 3 to 1, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Boys receive an overwhelming majority (71 percent, some research shows) of all school suspensions.
And eighth-grade boys are 50 percent more likely to be held back a grade than girls, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In analyzing why male students are struggling, experts point out that boys differ from girls in several important ways that can affect school performance. "We know that, on average, boys mature slower than girls and, on average, they,re more active than girls are, says Harvard University psychologist Dan Kindlon, whose best-selling book, "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, written with child psychologist Michael Thompson, came out this past spring. "If educators are not attuned to those differences, boys, early experience of school can develop an atmosphere of failure.
Be tough on the teacher
Don't take teachers' comments at face value. If you feel your child is getting stomped on by his teachers, intervene.
Don't watch grades alone ask about your son's emotional report card.
Push teachers to examine their assumptions about boys and their behavior.
Is the teacher interested in finding the root of a child's problem or is he/she only attempting to regulate and punish a child's behavior? Take note of the teacher's attitude toward boys in general. How do you rate it?
Suggestions from Judith Kleinfeld, William Pollack
Kindlon suggests that the fact that 84 percent of elementary school teachers are women often affects the way male students are dealt with: Male teachers are more likely to understand boys, rambunctiousness, while female teachers and administrators tend to misinterpret boys, normal high-activity level as willful misbehavior. "So what you have is a situation in which even the most well-meaning teachers find themselves trying to control the boys instead of teach them, he says.
Increased class size, a budgetary necessity for many big city schools, has also played into the mix. "In a classroom full of 38 or 40 students, the teacher understandably likes the quiet, well-behaved kids who make her job easier, says Kindlon,s co-author, Michael Thompson. "But, once again, this means that the energetic boys are likely to be disciplined for simply behaving normally. Added to this is the fact that many elementary schools are clamping down on running and other active playground games for legal reasons. "Rules like no running at recess are crazy for all kids, but worse for boys, Kindlon says. "Before long boys get the message that school is rigged against them.
William Pollack, a Harvard Medical School clinical psychologist and author of "Real Boys, Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, believes these early educational experiences create a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads boys to act out or withdraw. "Our present teaching styles and disciplinary habits are simply not suited for the average boy, and so often lock him into a terrible cycle of punishment and bad behavior.
To illustrate, Pollack tells a story related to him by an elementary school teacher at a seminar where he was the featured speaker. "She said she had these two boys who kept bumping into her. But it was a school rule that if you bump into someone three times, you,re sent to the principal,s office. At this juncture, another teacher at the seminar spoke out. "She said, Don't you know, those bumps are boys hugs. Try hugging the boys back., A few weeks later, the first teacher reported that, after the next bump, she,d taken the second teacher,s advice and sat down for an affectionate talk with both boys " and was astonished that the bumping behavior vanished.. "But what could have happened, says Pollack, "what usually does happen, is the boy is sent to the principal,s office and told he,s misbehaving. Naturally, he feels misunderstood and so is likely to act out in some other way. Year after year, that pattern is compounded until you have boys who are increasingly disconnected. Multiply that by a million boys and you get the statistics we're now seeing.
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Just as boys, efforts to interact with others are often misread, boys, depressions also often go unrecognized, Pollack says. "When a girl is depressed, she,s likely to be weepy and expressive, so we pay attention. But a depressed boy will express pain and depression through bravado, withdrawal and activity. As a consequence, rather than trying to look at the boy's underlying emotions, school officials often act punitively, or diagnosis him as learning disabled. "Certainly there are many genuine cases of ADD, but not in anywhere near the numbers that are being medicated every single school day.
Following the release of the AAUW study, the importance of sensitizing teachers and administrators to girls, learning styles was discussed everywhere from "Oprah! to Congress. State and federally funded programs were created requiring teacher training in gender equity. The National Science Foundation initiated a $9 million program to interest girls in science. Ironically, the effort to help girls may have unwittingly hurt boys. For example, girls tend to thrive in learning situations that are cooperative, rather than competitive. "Boys enjoy hierarchy and competition as long as the rules are fair, explains Judith Kleinfeld, a professor of psychology and an expert on gender issues from the University of Alaska. "Girls, however, tend not to. Some schools started eliminating academic competitions like science contests and spelling bees " and assigning group projects that earned group grades. "Girls, in general, did well with the group assignments, Pollack says. "However, we,ve found that boys, on average, are at a disadvantage in these team projects. "Even more disturbing, while much money and effort has been recently expended to help girls do better in the areas of math and science, no commensurate efforts have been made for boys in the crucial subjects of reading and writing. "It's obvious that boys are in deep trouble when it comes to reading and writing skills, says Pollack, who refers to a 1997 speech to Congress by Secretary of Education Richard Riley about these basic skills being "make or break points " not only in children,s education or career achievements but also in their later life choices. "And yet, the problem of boys and their poor reading and writing performance has received little or no attention.
None of the experts argue against the importance of understanding how girls learn and making the educational environment girl-friendly. But in the process, they say, boys needs have, at best, been pushed to the side " at worst, pathologized. "We're much less interested in boy psychology than girl psychology, says Michael Thompson. "Instead, we tend to focus on boy behavior and how to control it.
Ideally, the specific needs of both genders would be examined. "But that's not happening, says Cornelius Riordan. "Despite this array of male deficits we're seeing, virtually all efforts continue to be targeted towards the problems of girls.
Kleinfeld, herself the mother of two sons and a daughter, is quick to point out that girls, societal problems are not solved. Girls, she says, still suffer from body image issues like bulimia and anorexia, and are far more likely to be victims of sexual harassment. "But in general, I see them as optimistic, fuelled by girl power, and the feeling that It's our turn!, At the same time, the boys are retreating from school in large numbers, pretending that they don't care.
"It sounds terrible to say, says William Pollack, "but co-educational public schools have become the most boy-unfriendly places on earth. It may still be a man,s world. But it certainly isn't a boy's world.
Carol Gilligan,s groundbreaking studies illuminated the way in which society devalued girls and, as a result, shattered their sense of self. Now experts say that the culture in general has developed an allergic reaction to boys that is doing similar damage. "You even hear it in the jokes, says Kleinfeld, "in catch phrases like testosterone poisoning., Michael Thompson says he has seen a rise in antipathy toward male students, especially since the shootings in Littleton, Colo. "I see teachers who are actually scared of the ordinary adolescent boys in their schools. That's tragic.
Judy Chu, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who is conducting a new study, under Gilligan,s supervision, of the way young males view their place in society, agrees. "We're in the fourth year of studying how boys negotiate their sense of self in light of cultural constructs of masculinity, she says, "and we're finding that, in many cases, boys, styles of relating have negative connotations in our society. As a result, boys start to doubt themselves and their knowledge of themselves. As an example, Chu cites her observations of boys, rough and tumble play. "If a kindergarten boy shoots, me with a toy gun, it's not that he doesn't like me. It's that he,s trying to engage me. But often teachers and other adults will interpret such actions as negative aggression, Chu says.
"Let me put it another way, she adds with a rueful laugh. "When people ask me what I,m working on, and I tell them I,m doing research on adolescent boys, inevitably the response is, How awful for you!, The implication is that boys are somehow lesser people. And if I,m hearing that message a lot, can you imagine how often boys must hear it? They know what people think of them and they know that people think they,re bad.
Research indicates that this bad boy perspective has found its way into the classroom. "One of the most troubling things we're seeing from the studies, Kleinfeld says, "is that in the view of elementary and high school students, both boys and girls now agree that instructors favor girls. Teachers think girls are smarter, like being around them more, and hold higher expectations for them. Girls go to the head of the class
According to a 1997 MetLife survey of 1,306 students and teachers, girls feel better than boys about school and about their futures: More girls than boys say they are very likely to attend college (74 percent vs. 61 percent). More girls than boys feel that teachers actively encourage them to pursue their goals for the future (76 percent vs. 65 percent). More girls than boys feel that they get positive feedback from their teachers for answering correctly (81 percent vs. 72 percent) and helpful feedback when answering incorrectly (76 percent vs. 67 percent). More girls than boys feel that they are treated fairly by their teachers (81 percent vs. 73 percent). Fewer girls than boys feel that teachers do not listen to what they have to say (19 percent vs. 31 percent). Source: Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.
So what can we do as parents to help our sons? "We can teach teachers about boys, learning styles and help them adapt their teaching methods and curricula accordingly, says William Pollack, who is currently developing a boy-friendly workbook with the school districts of Houston that offers common sense proposals for how teachers can modify the classroom to benefit boys as well as girls. For example, Pollack suggests that teachers use consequences other than withdrawing recess for elementary school boys who are misbehaving. "When a kid can't sit still in class, and then we discipline him by taking away his physical activity for the day, that simply isn't going to be productive. Pollack suggests instead redirecting boys, energy into action-oriented educational tasks. "Boys, just like girls, do best in schools that give them the chance to participate in learning activities that correspond to their interests and competencies.
"Ten years ago, concludes Pollack, "girls raised their voices and said that schools needed to address the ways in which they learn. Naysayers said at the time that there couldn't be change. But a change was made. Now it's time to make an equally positive change for boys.
During the last two years, I,ve made a number of changes on my own son,s behalf: For instance, last spring when Will was lagging behind in English due to a general resistance to reading, I took him to the local library to pick out some unabridged books on tape in subjects I knew interested him. The fact that he could fidget and move around " while listening to a great story " miraculously jumpstarted a new appreciation of literature. As a result, by the end of the year, Will had turned in more extra-credit book reports than anyone else in the class. And then, when his all-boy group history project was headed for the toilet, we talked about how maybe he needed to view himself as captain of the team, even if that meant doing the most work. Surprisingly, he rose to the challenge and browbeat his cohorts into an A-quality report that they presented in the form of a Web site " because they all loved computers.
The author and her son, Will.
I also show up at his school as many times as necessary in order to remind his teachers that he is a terrific kid who responds better to encouragement than condemnation. Usually they don't look all that happy to see me. However, I keep on going. And at the last conference, Will,s math instructor actually gave me a hug and thanked me. "You know, she said, "we get so overworked, it's easy to forget the effect we have on these guys " because they just don't show it the way the girls do. It really helps to be reminded that boys are just as sensitive to our criticism and in need of our understanding. She smiled. "You know what I mean?
"Yes, I said and hugged her back with gratitude. "I do. _______________
Celeste Fremon is a freelance journalist who writes about kids, street gangs and other social issues. She is the author of "Father Greg & the Homeboys (Hyperion).