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Why are we Penalizing Boys?

Why are we Penalizing Boys?

In her recent NYTimes.com Motherlode blog from June 5th, Jessica Lahey’s (@jesslahey) post entitled “Three Things Students Wish Teachers Knew” highlighted some of the key points made by students.   One of the alarming comments that Jessica received from talking to about 100 students from across the country ended up being #1 on the list: 

 

 

 

1. “Be fair.”
Students are particularly attuned to even the slightest appearance of injustice, whether through the care and feeding of a teacher’s pet (“Teachers should be fair to all students and not choose favorites”), or in our sometimes unequal treatment of boys and girls (“Some teachers never yell at the girls, only the boys”).
Teachers know that we are not supposed to have favorites, but we often do, and our students are crystal clear about which students are in our favor and which ones have fallen out. As we struggle to keep track of the needs, wants, strengths and weaknesses of our many students, it is easy to forget that we are the sole teacher at the front of the room, often the sole focus of their attention, and our actions speak louder than our words.
The plea to treat boys and girls equally came up a lot, particularly from the boys I polled. Research shows that “Despite performing as least as well as girls on math tests, and significantly better on science tests, boys are not commensurately graded by their teachers.” Even when boys outperform girls on assessments, teachers still tend to grade girls more generously.

I guess it’s the 3rd paragraph that has me extremely concerned about the message we are sending boys about education.  Even though objective measures of academic achievement show comparative boy/girl success, in more subjective measures, like being graded by a teacher, boys come up short.  Don’t believe me? Can’t be so? 

Well, I didn’t think so until a few weeks ago.  While at my oldest son’s academic awards night, the venerable tradition of recognizing students on the All “A” Honor Roll commenced.   Now, as most of you know at this point, I have to go over the “rules” for how this particular school determines All “A”s.  In short, a student most earn an A every quarter, in every subject.  Not an average for the year or the semester but a physical A each grading period.  And did I forget to mention that the 4th quarter wasn’t complete? That those grades weren’t used in determining All “A”?  I digress.

My son’s school is a middle school made up of 5th - 8th grade.  It’s a rural/suburban school that does extremely well by most local, state, and national measures.  The school is relatively small with about 400 students total. 

As the names were read for each grade for the All “A” Honor roll, this dramatic visual started to slowly reveal itself on the school’s stage. Each child walked up, received a certificate and then took a place in a line, shoulder to shoulder, across the stage. By the end of the roll call, approximately 40 students stood shoulder to shoulder. Just 40 middle-schoolers had earned this honor.  But most astounding to me, was that there were only 10 boys scattered throughout the line. 10 boys out of a student body of 400. Assuming a 50/50 population split, that’s 200 boys, and according to my math that means only 5% of the boys in the entire school earned All “A”s. 5%!

I was flabbergasted as I looked at this scene on stage. I was talking to my wife, who was sitting next to me, about the visual on stage and thought that the rest of the room was taking in the same spectacle. I even heard a grandfather in front of me say overly loud, “Where are all the boys?”  No one else in the room seemed to notice.  

How is it possible that girls out-performed boys by a 3-to-1 margin? I’m not saying that the girls aren’t capable of out-performing the boys, but I’m saying that the discrepancy may have more to do with what Jessica’s survey suggests than the difference in performance between the genders. Why aren’t boys treated fairly when it comes to academics?  I wonder if the issue is that we “judge” behaviors of our students differently based upon the gender of the child?  Do we as teachers see boys that doodle, are energetic, and talkative as “problem” students? Do girls that exhibit similar behaviors treated like their male counterparts?  

I’m not saying that I have the answer. But I’m saying that we as a profession need to look at our own personal “preferences” when it comes to student behaviors. When those impact the academic communicators of success, are we truly assessing academic skills and abilities?  And when we say to the public that your boys aren’t good enough, how does the contribute to the cycle of sexism and gender biases we have in our society?

Why is education penalizing boys?

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