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

Friday, September 19, 2014

Girls Do Better Than Boys In School–And What We Can Learn From Them

The young son of a friend of mine re-upped for another tour with the universally hated Mrs. Randall, and asked to be in her second grade class.  So many parents pleaded with school administrators not to put their children in any class taught by Mrs. Randall, that the principal was pleased when Handel Biddings’ parents made the request.

Handel liked Mrs. Randall because she brooked no indiscipline in her class.  Anyone who poked, threw things, laughed, doodled, or fooled around during a lesson was put in the broom closet and kept there until the end of class.  The broom closet was particularly nasty because it was the one where all the bathroom mops were kept; and the janitors – an ill-paid and restive lot – never bothered to rinse them after they were through swabbing the piss-covered floors of the Boys’ Room.

Needless to say, the performance of children in Mrs. Randall’s second grade was among the best in the school, especially since no one could ever accuse her of grade inflation.  In addition to securing behavioral discipline and strict attention in her classroom, she demanded competent work.  She allowed no latitude for the ‘out of bounds’ children from dysfunctional families in the inner city who, because of a cyclical ebb in local fertility and a corresponding political interest in diversity, they were allowed in to what was a classically ‘neighborhood school’. 

No matter who a child was or where he came from, no sloppy work was tolerated; and if Mrs. Randall saw indifferent work which suggested inattention or bad behavior, she smacked her ruler down two inches from the offending student’s hand, looked him in the eye and said, “You hardheaded, boy.”  She would glower and glare at him, move closer, and go on. “I don’t want to come by this desk again, boy; and if I do, this ruler won’t miss your fingers, and you won’t be able to pick your nose again ever”.

Handel was a smart boy, and he begged his parents to take him out of school.  As much as he thrived in the Marine Corps discipline of Mrs. Randall’s class, he said he would learn a lot more on his own. “They’re nice kids”, he said, referring to his classmates, “but they’re dumb”.

Mr. and Mrs. Biddings had put Handel into the local public school because of lingering liberal residue from the Sixties. Public school was the last chance that Handel and his sister would have to be in a mixed racial and social environment; and that would be good for them.  What they didn’t count on was that in a gotta-take-all public school, there are a lot of dummies in the grab bag.  Handel had a point about self-learning, but his parents were adamant about sticking it out until academic deficiency outweighed social consciousness. He lasted two more years and then enrolled in one of Washington’s most competitive private schools. 

In a recent article in the Atlantic (9.19.14) Enrico Gnaulati cites abundant evidence that girls do better than boys in elementary and secondary school in every country in the world.  It is because girls are more composed, respectful of authority, more disciplined and cooperative.  While boys are flicking boogers and shoving the kid in front of them, girls are paying attention to the teacher.  While boys are out fighting in the alley after school and come in with ragged, half-done homework, girls turn in clean, neat, and properly completed assignments.

Claire Cameron Ponitz from the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia found that [children] who are destined to do well in a typical 21st century kindergarten class are those who manifest good self-regulation…a term that mostly refers to disciplined behaviors like raising one’s hand in class, waiting one’s turn, paying attention, listening to and following teachers’ instructions, and restraining oneself from blurting out answers. These skills are prerequisites for most academically oriented kindergarten classes in America—as well as basic prerequisites for success in life.

It turns out that girls are better at self-regulation than boys, and most of them, Ponitz found, continue to do well in school throughout their academic career.

Top cognitive scientists from the University of Pennsylvania also found that girls are apt to start their homework earlier in the day than boys and spend almost double the amount of time completing it. Girls’ grade point averages across all subjects were higher than those of boys, even in basic and advanced math—which, again, are seen as traditional strongholds of boys.

Other researchers have found that

“Girls succeed over boys in school because they tend to be more mastery-oriented in their schoolwork habits. They are more apt to plan ahead, set academic goals, and put effort into achieving those goals. They also are more likely than boys to feel intrinsically satisfied with the whole enterprise of organizing their work, and more invested in impressing themselves and their teachers with their efforts”

Educators now feel that boys may be getting the short end of the stick because that typically male behavior is being dismissed as anti-social and anti-academic.  Boys are being punished at an alarming rate just for being boys.  How do we accommodate boys’ natural tendency to be physically active, competitive, and macho peacocks without sacrificing those female traits understood to be the sine qua non of academic success?

A lot of teachers are unhappy with this new direction in education. Disruptive boys are the bane of their existence; and being female, they understandably favor girls and their easily recognizable socialized behavior.  This is being recognized as gender bias, and for the first time boys are the aggrieved sex.

Some schools have decided to take the bull by the horns and give boys a much easier  ride at the rodeo:

Staff at Ellis Middle School also stopped factoring homework into a kid’s grade. Homework was framed as practice for tests. Incomplete or tardy assignments were noted but didn’t lower a kid’s knowledge grade. The whole enterprise of severely downgrading kids for such transgressions as occasionally being late to class, blurting out answers, doodling instead of taking notes, having a messy backpack, poking the kid in front, or forgetting to have parents sign a permission slip for a class trip, was revamped.

In non-academic circles this would be known as capitulation, dumbing down, and PC politics.  As far as I can remember, my children’s homework assignments were not practice anything.  They were given to encourage if not demand logical thinking, organization, writing skills, and intellectual synthesis.  Dismissing them as ‘practice’ neuters their purpose entirely.

Tolerating anti-social behavior – let’s face it, screwing around in class is most definitely anti-social, disrespecting as it does those who are there to learn – is giving in to the worst classroom behavior.  The Mrs. Randalls of the world will be sent to a Siberian gulag – an inner-city school where all academic pretense has been dropped, and ‘education’s is wholly a matter of discipline, reprimand, and punishment.

Handel did well at his private middle and high schools, and then went on to excel at Harvard.  Admittedly he was a smart boy who had the advantage of insistent, but not overbearing parents.  Learning was a pleasure and a privilege in the Biddings household. Discipline was instilled from a very early age, not in a punitive way but a positive one.  Focus, hard work, and concentration enabled Kant to write Critique of Pure Reason, Handel’s father told him. “You can bet your bottom dollar he wasn’t out in the backyard playing quoits when he could have been studying.”

The academic environment at the Barrow School was one of behavioral discipline, academic challenge, and a respect for ideas, innovation, and creativity.  Teachers understood that boys are more restless and impatient than girls, but they knew that this unfocused energy could be channeled and directed into positive enterprise.  As importantly, all students at Barrow were smart, and the dynamic created by 50 high-IQ classmates and from homes as supportive and challenging as Handel Billings’ was motivation enough to assure continued focus, hard work, and concentration.

The point is not that all students should go to Barrow; but that the same intellectual and academic skills encouraged there – the same ones that seem to be innate in girls - should apply to all students. For a child with modest intelligence, structure, discipline, and attentiveness are the only chances he has to get ahead.  We shortchange these less-endowed boys if we give up on them and give in to their disruptiveness.

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