A Pendulum Too Far: Is it time to pay attention to boys education?

Grand River Academy: An all-boys boarding schoolLisa Wolfe published a thoughtful musing on the current state of boys education over at The Daily Beast, “Boys’ Self Esteem Problems.”

She begins, interestingly, with a question posited by a colleague of mine about 20 years ago.  We had been sitting through faculty meetings, over a few years, with topic-after-topic, idea-after-idea, and speaker-after-speaker covering what the faculty needed to do to make school more inclusive and comfortable for girls. Bluntly, we needed to protect, and facilitate, girls in male dominated classrooms.

My colleague (father of two boys- at the time, one high school aged, the other younger) presciently asked, “has anyone thought or considered, how this might affect boys?”

At the time, the un-nuanced, reflexive answer was ‘girls are in crisis. They fall behind in high school.  They’re intimidated by boys in the classroom. We’ve got to reign the boys in.’ Boys weren’t viewed, or valued, as complex systems and beings in their own right. Boys were reduced to a crisis producing threat.

Turns out, my colleague was right. Our changes produced unseen effects. Now, it’s boys who are falling behind.

I don’t mean, in any way, to diminish the history of women, absolve men of patriarchal policies, practices, and government, or, negate the idea that we needed to change our schools to put boys and girls on equal footing. Knowing the history can shed light on why the pendulum may now have swung so far as to create education structures that nurture girls more effectively than boys.

Highlights from Wolfe

“…As girls catch up to—and surge past—boys in many educational realms, scenarios like this are playing out in homes and classrooms across the country. ‘Boys have stayed at the same level in school,’ said Michael Thompson, a psychologist and the co-author of Raising Cain. ‘But girls have zoomed by them. Because of the anxious attention we pay to education, this can be demoralizing.’

…Girls are outperforming boys in all subjects except math and science, and even there, they’re closing the gap. There has been a steady 25-year decline in boys’ participation in extracurricular activities as girls take over clubs, newspapers, and yearbooks. For every 100 girls with learning disabilities there are 276 boys. For every 100 women graduating college, there are 77 men.

But how this shift is affecting boys psychologically is less well-known, perhaps partly because parents and teachers are reluctant to raise the question for fear it will be perceived as taking attention away from girls. But talk to them privately, and many teachers and parents say they worry that the sea change occurring in America’s classrooms is leaving boys feeling helpless and sapping them of their motivation.

…experts agree the main problem is an accelerated school curriculum that places a growing emphasis on sitting and verbalizing, when boys learn from moving and doing…”

…‘Boys used to be a scourge on middle school girls, snapping their bras and things like that,’ said Thompson. ‘We defined this as sexual harassment and so they stopped. They knew they could get into trouble. But seventh-grade girls telling boys they’re stupid and lazy doesn’t get them into trouble.’

‘Girls say that all the time!’ said Jon, a senior at a private high school in New York. ‘They call you stupid, lazy, and immature, and they hit you, but you can’t hit back.’

‘Sure girls hit,’ said Ariel, a junior at a large public school. ‘They do it when no one is looking because they know you’re not allowed to hit back. But what are you going to do? That’s how it is. Don’t forget they call it girl power, not boy power.’ (BSEP)

Bringing the Gender Attention Pendulum Back to the Middle

Coordinate Schools
Using a complex approach- growing out of research by Dr. Leonard Sax. From an older article of mine, “The Webb Schools’ Distinctive Coed Environment“:

The Webb Schools (CA) works with boys and girls using a ‘coordinate school structure.’ Webb brings together the environments, opportunities, and structures that are healthiest for boys and girls. 9th and 10th grade students attend single gender classes. 9th and 10th grade girls and boys are given the space and support to grow safely. Boys and girls learn to respect differences; they work from their own perspectives and come together in negotiation and compromise on community matters.

11th and 12th grade students attend co-ed classes and boys and girls maintain separate leadership and chapel structures throughout their four years.

…each gender operates under its own student leadership structures though all four grades. Boys and girls each have their own honor committees and advisee programs. Webb’s single gender chapel programs provide a safe venue for intra-gender dialog and parallel governance, allowing for greater leadership opportunities.

Parallel opportunities and structures provide the boys and girls safe space and opportunities to learn, and to gain academic and social confidence…

Single Gender Schools
Single gender education presents the tried-and-true approach to balancing the the developmental differences of student. Some students do well in coed education; some do well in single gender education.

The boarding school community offers many long-lived, traditional single gender schools that do excellent work understanding the unique steps and needs in the growth of their boys and girls.

The National Coalition of Girls Schools provides a great resource and funds solid research behind understanding, and documenting, the affects of a girls school education. The International Coalition of Boys Schools fills a similar role for boys education.

Ignore single gender education naysayers. Naysayers of single gender education often cry, ‘single gender education doesn’t prepare students for the the real world.’

I respond with two quick thoughts.

First, childhood and adolescence are largely comprised of learning experiences that are not the same as the adult world but still cultivate growth in preparation for adulthood. We should never expect school or learning experiences to the same as adult experiences. Secondly, not a lick of evidence exists, that students who graduate from single gender secondary schools are less prepared for coed relationships or settings.

Select Readings

The Benefits of Attending a Girls’ School: What the Research Shows,” National Coalition of Girls Schools

Why Single-Sex? Talk by Dennis Campbell, Headmaster, Woodberry Forest School,” International Coalition of Boys Schools

Photo credit: Grand River Academy

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

More by Brian Fisher

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