"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Discrimination Against Boys

The issue of teacher discrimination against boys has been debated for some time, and many educators have concluded that boys’ poorer grade performance is partially due to including ‘bad behavior’ in evaluations.  Boys do as well if not better than girls on standardized tests, but their educational performance is significantly below what would be predicted by the tests, suggesting negative teacher influence.

Despite the convictions of early feminists that there are no in-built genetic differences between men and women, and that it is only environment which determines feminine or masculine behavior, most observers no longer believe this.  Boys are indeed very different from girls. Their aggression (guns and rough play); preference for building and destroying (trucks and equipment); and their restlessness, rambunctiousness, and lack of patience and concentration are male traits.

Teachers, it appears, have had the tendency to ‘punish’ or at least penalize boys for what they consider antisocial behavior.  Looked at one way, teachers are simply factoring in social variables, acknowledging that no child will succeed in life without acquiring the discipline, focus, and attention that the adult world requires; and grades should reflect these abilities.  If one looks more critically, teachers -  predominantly female in the lower grades - are getting theirs for the unnecessary hours spent disciplining untrained brats. God knows the teachers have been after their husbands for years for belching, farting; and peeing on, around, but not in the toilet; and for not having the patience, focus, and discipline to wash the dishes without throwing them around and chipping them.

In many schools taking a few points off boys’ grades to get parents’ attention is not enough.  In the District of Columbia where I live, the issue of grades itself is irrelevant. So is the matter of teaching for that matter, and those educators who actually choose to ‘teach’ in Southeast communities whose schools more resemble prisons than places of learning, require paramilitary basic training not pedagogy. Metal detectors, beefy guards, armed police monitors, and virtual lockdowns of classrooms are necessary to prevent the boys from carrying guns, fighting gang rivals, and throwing furniture – most definitely not a Norman Rockwell school idyll where the barefoot boy aims his peashooter at the cute, pigtailed girl in the front row.

The elementary school that my son attended in our upper middle-class professional neighborhood was a furlough site for teachers that had been on the frontlines in the inner city.  Here they could actually teach, and the white children could get a dose of diversity. Some teachers never lost their old habits, and my son’s second grade teacher, at the first sign of misbehavior, shut the offending boy in the broom closet.  My son was very happy about this because school was a necessary bore, and time wasted because of disruptive behavior was his time wasted.

Some recycled teachers on ‘educational respite’ could not deal with the new environment and the particular type of boys’ misbehavior common in our neighborhood. One was used to fighting – the physical kind meant to wound and hurt learned from fathers and uncles – not the simple hijinks of our school.  Here, the boys teased and taunted, jostled and pushed, interrupted class with what they thought were clever remarks or insults.  One day when the principal came to visit her class, she saw a boy on top of his desk imitating the statue of an obscure Civil War colonel in a nearby park, and his friends were flapping their arms like the pigeons about to roost on the colonel’s head and shit on it.  She was recycled back to the ‘hood where she at least knew what to expect.

Fortunately the scene inside the armed camps of DC is restricted to the inner cities of most big metropolitan areas; and most of the rest of the country has disruptive but manageable boys. Christina Hoff Summers has written about the phenomenon and what to do about it (New York Times, 2.3.13).

First she notes that not only are girls performing better than boys in the early grades, but since the 70s when the gender playing field started to be leveled, they are out-achieving them at every level of higher education:

In 1985, boys and girls took Advanced Placement exams at nearly the same rate. Around 1990, girls moved ahead of boys, and have never looked back. Women now account for roughly 60 percent of associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees and have begun to outpace men in obtaining Ph.D.’s.

The problem is serious, boys are getting left behind, and what she does not say is that many are doped up to keep them quiet.  The rate of prescriptions for Ritalin and other drugs purported to successfully treat Attention Deficit Disorder (twice as high in boys) is soaring.  Many preoccupied two-income professional families, harried by work and obstreperous boys at home, demand something to take the problem off their hands, and a drug is so much simpler than the hours of discipline, reminders, rewards, and punishment.  Teachers inherit undisciplined, rowdy, and disrespectful boys from families whose parents have not done their job.  Teachers in Chicago, recently on strike, defended themselves against those who said that they were not doing their job, not raising student performance levels.  What do you expect? asked the teachers.  Look at the sorry lot of so-called students that enter our classrooms. 

It is not surprising that today’s teachers discriminate against boys.  Female teachers cannot be immune from the demands of feminists and their more moderate supporters to promote the interests of girls, and can’t help but seeing the wild boys in their classrooms as future miscreant husbands. 

Early feminists took no prisoners in their assault on male privilege, and if boys and men got hurt in the ascendancy of women to their rightful, superior place in American life, so be it.  Apparently there are some women who still believe this:

There are some who say, well, too bad for the boys. If they are inattentive, obstreperous and distracting to their teachers and peers, that’s their problem. After all, the ability to regulate one’s impulses, delay gratification, sit still and pay close attention are the cornerstones of success in school and in the work force. It’s long past time for women to claim their rightful share of the economic rewards that redound to those who do well in school.

Parents, too, are complicit in this war against boys for they have abnegated their crucial responsibilities for bringing up disciplined, responsible children. One day at our local public school while dropping off my daughter at kindergarten I met the mother of the most disruptive boy in the class – a real monster.  She kissed him good-bye and said to the teacher, “He’s your problem now”.

What can be done? The author has temperately and objectively characterized the current scene, and while she has judiciously avoided the more contentious issues of parental dereliction of duty and the lingering effects of feminism, she does identify many crucial variables:

I emphasized boy-averse trends like the decline of recess, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, the tendency to criminalize minor juvenile misconduct and the turn away from single-sex schooling. As our schools have become more feelings-centered, risk-averse, collaboration-oriented and sedentary, they have moved further and further from boys’ characteristic sensibilities.

As importantly, she suggests how other countries have successfully dealt with the problem:

The British, the Canadians and the Australians have openly addressed the problem of male underachievement…experimenting with programs to help boys become more organized, focused and engaged. These include more boy-friendly reading assignments (science fiction, fantasy, sports, espionage, battles); more recess (where boys can engage in rough-and-tumble as a respite from classroom routine); campaigns to encourage male literacy; more single-sex classes; and more male teachers (and female teachers interested in the pedagogical challenges boys pose).

Some US schools are following suit.  The Aviation School in New York City, a vocational school, has a very clear and focused plan:

“The school is all about structure,” an assistant principal, Ralph Santiago, told me. The faculty emphasizes organization, precision, workmanship and attention to detail. The students are kept so busy and are so fascinated with what they are doing that they have neither the time nor the desire for antics.

As laudable as this approach is, it is just a drop in the ocean of parent indifference, community dysfunction, residual feminist sentiments, and the risk-averse, boy-unfriendly environments of schools.  As with any problem caused by multiple factors, the solution is not simple, and progress seems far away.

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