Public schools are not diverse enough for boys

by Grace

Do our public schools penalize boys (and girls) who are not “nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious”?  David Brooks thinks that the lack of cultural diversity in our schools is part of the problem in the gender achievement gap.

The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.

Far from all, but many of the people who don’t fit in are boys. A decade or so ago, people started writing books and articles on the boy crisis. At the time, the evidence was disputable and some experts pushed back. Since then, the evidence that boys are falling behind has mounted. The case is closed. The numbers for boys get worse and worse.

By 12th grade, male reading test scores are far below female test scores. The eminent psychologist Michael Thompson mentioned at the Aspen Ideas Festival a few days ago that 11th-grade boys are now writing at the same level as 8th-grade girls. Boys used to have an advantage in math and science, but that gap is nearly gone.

Boys are much more likely to have discipline problems. An article as far back as 2004 in the magazine Educational Leadership found that boys accounted for nearly three-quarters of the D’s and F’s.

Some colleges are lowering the admissions requirements just so they can admit a decent number of men. Even so, men make up just over 40 percent of college students. Two million fewer men graduated from college over the past decade than women. The performance gap in graduate school is even higher.

Some of the decline in male performance may be genetic. The information age rewards people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses. Girls may, on average, do better at these things. After all, boys are falling behind not just in the U.S., but in all 35 member-nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But the big story here is cultural and moral. If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time. If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is just not that easy.

Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.

The basic problem is that schools praise diversity but have become culturally homogeneous. The education world has become a distinct subculture, with a distinct ethos and attracting a distinct sort of employee. Students who don’t fit the ethos get left out.

Brooks is describing what is often called the “feminization” of public schools.  This term is distasteful to some, probably because it reinforces gender stereotypes.  Whatever the label, it does appear that schools have become “culturally homogeneous” in a way that hurts boys more than girls.  It starts in elementary school when an early reader is told that he got the wrong answer because he picked “mad” instead of “sad” to describe how the boy in the story feels after he doesn’t get the bike he wanted for his birthday.*  It continues through high school where group discussions in history class only allow expressions of compassion for victims of war but no praise for brilliant military maneuvers.  The message is clear – only certain types of behaviors and thoughts are welcome in the classroom.

There’s no doubt that students do need to be “studious and industrious” to perform well academically.  It just seems that public schools are misguided in the methods they use in trying to develop those qualities in all students, particularly in boys.

* This example of using of whole language to teach reading is a related problem in the gender achievement gap.


10 Comments to “Public schools are not diverse enough for boys”

  1. I read the most popular comments on this story, and as usual I strongly disagreed with these “typical” NYT readers. I’m often skeptical of what David Brooks writes, but this piece resonated with my experience. I liked that he made the point that these differences are not always gender-specific.

    Many of the factors are the result of relatively recent changes, like downplaying competition and the middle school model that pushes organizational challenges to students at an age where boys are less able to handle them. I also agree that boys need to be taught to be more organized, but I just think the schools are doing it the wrong way.

    My experience is reflected in what I wrote, and that’s even with my own kids’ behaviors not falling along stereotypical gender lines. Maybe if I had seen them suffer from teachers’ assumptions about gender-specific behavior I would have a different opinion.

    Supporting the troops (compassion) is quite different from celebrating military strengths (competition, w/a dash of testosterone?). I also saw what appears to be much of the military historical stuff relegated to clubs, and I can only speculate the reasons for that. It could be that it’s not part of state curriculum or maybe they want to encourage boys to participate in some extracurricular activities besides sports.


  2. My much younger brother was an iffy high school student, but he LOVED Tom Clancy and military stuff. As I’ve heard, he wrote a number of apparently rather good papers on military topics that just didn’t fly with the nice liberal ladies who taught English at our public high school. He and his English teachers didn’t have a lot in common. My parents figured he was being downgraded just for subject material, rather for any issues with composition. Unfortunately, the military was where his interests lay, and he just wouldn’t have been able to muster equal passion or effort for other subjects. There was also the issue that the paper grades seemed to come out of the blue–there’d be almost no corrections or notes on returned papers to explain the mediocre grades. He eventually went into the Marine Reserves, did two tours in Iraq, finished up his college degree (computer science or similar) and is now a Marine officer.

    I wonder how many boys are similarly specialists in their interests. That could be another gender difference. Of course, there are girls who are narrow specialists in their teens, but there are a lot more boys with that profile.


  3. “I wonder how many boys are similarly specialists in their interests. That could be another gender difference. Of course, there are girls who are narrow specialists in their teens, but there are a lot more boys with that profile.”

    This makes me think of Asperger’s, more frequently diagnosed among boys and often typified by an obsessive interest in one or few subjects.

    Amy – I love hearing stories like that of your brother. It helps show there are various and different paths to a successful life. And I thank him for his service.


  4. Bonnie – Well, it seems that although we disagree on the reasoning behind it, we do seem to agree that schools should become more culturally diverse. Although on average I see significant differences between boys and girls, I do not support pigeonholing any person because of their gender. (Today my teen daughter started reading “First Blood”, the novel that was the basis for the “Rambo” movies.)


  5. I did read the latest David Brooks opinion piece, and I saw it also got slammed in the comments.


  6. Another possible gender difference is a lot of boys being a bit slower out of the gate in high school. It’s so common for boys to be kind of muddled and disorganized in high school or their first go at college, but then successfully manage college a couple years later, maybe after some years in the military or similar. It may be developmental (you know how brains aren’t quite developed until around 25?), or the influence of a more structured environment, or some of both. On the other hand, there certainly are boys who are screw ups in high school and for the rest of their lives, too, as well as girls who are also slow out of the gate in high school but who eventually pull themselves together.


  7. Bonnie – They never had to get through middle school. 🙂


  8. “With all these deficits, however did boys and men manage to dominate the world for most of human history?”

    Genghis Khan probably never had to build a diorama, make a poster, write a research paper or do a group project outside of his special interest.


  9. Personally, I believe that schools are handling the idea of diversity completely wrong. The idea of diversity is based around the belief that not everyone is the same. It is a known fact that not all students learn the same way. However, the school system tends to favor specific types of students, specifically those who are ambitious, organized, and collaborative. I don’t necessarily believe that schools are more accommodating to girls than boys, but I do believe that our educational program is built around a specific type of students.

    Diversity is greatly stressed in schools, but the schools refuse to adapt to the different types of students. An example of this would be a family deciding to adopt several children from different countries, but not bothering to try to learn their native languages. The family welcomes diversity, but at the same time they refuse to adapt. Our school system is the same way. Schools want more diversity within their walls, but they refuse to accommodate the different types of students.


  10. Can you give an example of how a school could change to accommodate different types of students?


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