What's Happening to Boys?

An article in US News and World Report describes how more and more colleges and universities around the United States are giving preferential treatment to boys in the admissions process. Why? Because the girls, on average, are better-qualified. The girls have better grades and test scores. "If Princeton had gender-blind admissions, the Princeton student body would be 70% female," the dean of admissions at Princeton, Janet Rapelye, told former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett. Most of the boys who apply to Princeton are good students with decent grades and test scores. But many of the young women are simply "amazing." Not only do the young women often have straight-A's (or very nearly) and great test scores, but they're also starting their own non-profit organizations, working at soup kitchens for the homeless, inventing new vaccines, etc.

Most coed colleges and universities don't want their campuses to be 70/30 female/male. "It's the College of William and Mary, not the College of Mary and Mary," said the director of admissions at the College of William and Mary, defending his college's policy of admitting less-qualified boys in order to maintain a 50/50 gender balance.

Many American colleges and universities "are maintaining their gender balance by admitting men and women at sometimes drastically different rates" according to that article in US News and World Report. And there's no taper of that trend in sight. As a result, "that thumb on the boys' side of the admissions scale will have to press much harder in the coming years" if colleges and universities are going to maintain a 50/50 female/male balance in coming years, again quoting from the US News and World Report.

And what happens once boys get to college? As the New York Times reported in a front-page story, "At Colleges, Women Are Leaving Men in the Dust." There's a growing "gender divide" in academic achievement at colleges and universities, according to the Times. Thirty years ago, the majority of students who graduated from college with honors were men. Today, most of the students graduating with honors are women. To be sure, the fact that more women are going to college, and doing well there, is NOT the problem; on the contrary, that's cause for celebration. The question is: why can't their brothers keep pace with them? One young man, who graduated from a private high school in New Jersey and then went to Dickinson College, told the Times that "I came here with the attitudes I'd had in high school, that the big thing, for guys, is to give the appearance of not doing much work, trying to excel at sports and shine socially. . . like Bart Simpson. For men, it's just not cool to study."

Why? What's changed? Why is it no longer cool "for men" to study? Why do more and more boys and young men regard superior academic achievement as unmasculine?

And what can you -- as a teacher or a parent -- do about it?

Those are the questions which Dr. Leonard Sax (director of NASSPE) addresses in his second book, Boys Adrift: the five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. Dr. Sax presents evidence showing that on a wide number of measures, a growing proportion of boys just don't have the drive and motivation which their sisters have. And he shares strategies which have been used by parents and teachers around the United States and Canada to get their sons back in gear. One of those strategies is single-sex education: either boys in boys' classrooms at a coed school, or an all-boys school. For many boys, the single-sex format - when done well - can change a boy's attitude toward school, from sullen resentment and apathy to enthusiasm and energy. That doesn't happen automatically just by putting all the boys in one room, of course. Teachers have to know how to take advantage of the all-boys format. Teachers have to have the right kind of training. That's what our conferences are for; that's what our teacher-training workshops are about.

Question: Why does the all-boys format motivate boys to learn?

In answer to that question, Dr. Sax likes to share a story he heard from parents after visiting an all-boys school in Dulwich, England. A particular boy didn't like school. He had always attended a prestigious coed private school, but he wasn't motivated. Then his parents transferred him, at age 12, to Dulwich Prep, an all-boys school. Same class size, same demographics as the coed school. But the boy's attitude changed almost instantly. The first week of school, he didn't want to go to bed one night. He wanted to stay up and keep working on the homework assignment. He'd never before wanted to stay up late just to do homework.

What was the homework assignment?

The homework assignment was from the creative writing class. "You are a Roman gladiator. Tomorrow you fight in the arena. How do you prepare today?" The boy had so many ideas. You would kill a chicken, and smear the fat over your shield to make it slippery. Then drink the blood! Then sacrifice to the gods. And on and on. He didn't want to stop. And he went on to become a prolific and enthusiastic writer. At coed schools in America and the UK today, we seldom encourage boys to write such stories. Teachers who lead all-boys classrooms know that some boys want to write such stories. When they are discouraged -- when the teacher says "why do you want to write such violent stories? Why can't you write something nice, like Melissa wrote?" -- the result is not that the boy writes a story like Melissa. The result, too often, is that the boy decides that writing stories is something that girls and geeks do. Real boys play video games. That's the message which many coed schools today are unintentionally giving to boys. Teachers in all-boys schools can send a different message.

Graham Able, of Dulwich College, studied the performance of girls and boys in 30 single-sex and coeducational schools throughout England. He found that while both girls and boys did better in these single-sex schools than they did in the coeducational schools, the single-sex advantage was greater for the boys than it was for the girls.

Here's a quotation from Graham Able's report:

The unsubstantiated mythology of the educational establishment has been that girls do better in single sex schools but that boys are "brought on" by the more studious girls in a co-educational environment. This mythology has never been supported by any objective evidence, and any policy derived from it must presumably sacrifice the advantages to one sex in order to promote the cause of the other. . . [Our] results suggest that single sex schools give an even greater academic advantage to boys than for girls. This directly contradicts the popular educational myth that boys do better in the classroom if girls are present to set them a good example. One could reasonably conclude from this study that both boys and girls are academically disadvantaged in co-educational schools, but that the disadvantage is greater for the boys.

You'll sometimes hear critics say, "Maybe boys do better academically at some boys' schools, but surely boys do better in terms of social adjustment at coed schools." Maybe not. Educators at a conference in Sydney, Australia heard several speakers present evidence that boys who attend single-sex schools may do better in terms of maturity and social adjustment, than boys who attend coed schools. Dr. Bruce Cook, principal of the Southport School on the Gold Coast, told the audience that boys educated in single-sex schools end up being more confident and more courteous around girls. "In coed schools, boys tend to adopt a 'masculine' attitude because girls are there," he said. "They feel they have to demonstrate their emerging masculinity by gross macho over-reaction." Boys in single-sex schools "become more sensitive men," and they're more polite. Dr. Sax presents similar evidence from boys' schools in America in Boys Adrift.

Historian Steven Millies shared with us how attending a single-sex high school changed his life. "I began high school more shy than most adolescents," he recalls. "But I did take the enormous step of joining the speech team, and that opened a new world to me. It led me to other activities, and eventually to writing a column for the school paper. The capstone came during my senior year when I debated a fiery teacher about the Vietnam War in front of four history classes. The event drew so much attention that other people wanted to attend. By the end of the day, we had been seen by practically everyone in the school. These experiences were an awakening. I strongly believe that they made possible the development of interests and skills that led me to undertake a PhD in history. When I think back on the catalyst -- joining the speech team -- and I consider the fact that forensics in Illinois is dominated by girls, about 70/30, I cannot imagine that I would have joined the team in a coed school. Even leaving shyness out of the question, it would have been a 'girls' thing.' Knowing the south side of Chicago as I do, I have to believe that any boy who joined the team would have been making himself a target. I needed the chance to explore my own potential without worrying about looking foolish in front of the girls."

Boys at single-sex schools have more diverse role models of their own sex. Andrew Hunter, a school principal who has taught at both coed and single-sex schools, says that "there is a subtle pressure toward gender stereotyping in mixed schools. In boys' schools, boys feel free to be themselves, to follow their interests and talents in what might be regarded as non-macho pursuits: music, arts, drama." We've heard from many young men who have shared how their interest in poetry, or history, etc. only began after they enrolled in a single-sex school. In the single-sex environment, they didn't feel any embarrassment in showing an interest in those "non-macho" activities.

Brian Walsh, who has been a principal at private boys' schools and private coed schools in New England, made this observation: "Boys ordinarily do not even try to sing in a coed school, whereas they love choral singing in a boys' school; in the coed setting they make fun of French pronunciation, whereas in the single-sex setting they enjoy becoming fluent in French; in drama, they muck up or clown around to avoid seeming imperfect in a coed setting, whereas they excel at drama when by themselves."

A nationwide study by Marcia Gentry and her associates, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, confirmed what many earlier studies had suggested: at every age, boys in coed schools are less enthusiastic about school than girls are. This finding holds whether you're looking at urban schools or rural schools, affluent schools or schools located in low-income communities. And, as boys get older, the "enthusiasm gap" widens. The older boys get, the more they tend to perceive doing well in school as "geeky." Boys perceive the coed school as an institution run largely by women and run largely according to women's rules: sit still, don't make too much noise, don't be disruptive. They see that the majority of the top students are girls, and the "teacher's pet" is either a girl or a geek. So, many boys may devalue academic excellence. If you're a boy at a coed school, being an "A" student does not raise your status with other boys. At many coed schools, being an "A" student may actually lower your status with other boys. Source: Marcia Gentry, Robert Gable, and Mary Rizza, "Students' perceptions of classroom activities: are there grade-level and gender differences?" Journal of Educational Psychology, volume 94, number 3 (September 2002), pages 539-544.

At boys' schools, as Dr. Sax describes in Boys Adrift, it's common to find that the best football player or the best basketball soccer player is also the top student. At coed schools, that's rare.

The first task of any teacher who hopes to teach boys is to get the boys motivated. The great challenge of our era is how to motivate boys, when the popular culture of Akon and Eminem teaches boys that academic achievement is unmasculine. The all-boys format offers the opportunity to construct a different culture, a culture in which it's cool to be a scholar. As noted above, this doesn't happen merely by removing girls; teachers and administrators have to know how to achieve this. That's what our teacher-training workshops are for.
 

 

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