Failing at Fairness (again)

A decade or so ago the focus was all on girls and how schools were failing to give them the attention and support they need to compete in school and to get a fair shake in the classroom.

In recent years the focus has turned to boys and, if the media are to be believed, there is a crisis of male achievement in schools. Even Laura Bush endorsed the idea a few years ago when she declared that this was to be her new focus.

In a recent Newsweek article Peg Tyre – author of the Trouble with Boys – lists the now familiar woeful tale of how boys are statistically struggling to compete and keep up in school.

Schools are cited as contributing to the crisis* and the rush to find a quick fix leads some to promote single-sex education as the panacea.

What’s missing is a differentiated and detailed analysis. For a very different take see The Myth of the ‘Boy Crisis’ and No Crisis for Boys in Schools.

Cutting through the confusion is Gender Myths and the Education of Boys in Independent School magazine. from NAIS. The authors challenge not only the very existence of the crisis but also the cherished notions that underlie much of the thinking. One of the side bars reads:

There is a consensus in the social sciences that, while certain gender differences in cognitive abilities do exist, they are not large, and there are more differences among boys and among girls than there are differences between the sexes.

And as for the panacea of single-sex education the authors write:

Professor Alan Smithers, a British psychologist, reviewed half a century of research comparing public and private single-sex schools and coeducational schools. His primary conclusion is that this research has so far revealed no striking or consistent differences in academic achievement one way or the other. There are so many variables … that it is nearly impossible to tease out what difference gender mix makes.

So what’s a school to do? There is no data to suggest that boys are destined to fail in school. And the root of whatever the academic issues with boys may be it is not their brains, eyes, ears, or cognitive “hard-wiring”.

The authors of the the NAIS article suggest we would do better to:

“look what Harvard’s William Pollack, author of Real Boys, calls “the boy culture” to understand the roots of underachievement, when it occurs. This culture, Pollack argues, puts a premium on machismo, denigrates learning, and detaches boys from their emotions at an early age….The remedy lies in creating a positive culture of learning in the classroom and beyond …. “Many schools already do this well — and should be telling this story more often. But, unfortunately, the media loves to hype crises — or even create crises where they don’t exist. As educators, we need to not get caught up in these media games, and instead focus on what we know works for all children.”

The real crisis, they suggest, is not the media hyped boy-girl gender crisis but the failure of our educational system to close the divides between income and class divides of the haves and the have-nots.”

The cost of not doing so is already high and can get worse.

Meanwhile – here at PDS – we believe that both girls and boys can thrive in a positive culture for learning; a place where active learning and opportunities for leadership are the norm and one that honors effort, appreciates difference and is built on mutual respect. A dynamic curriculum and a dedicated and talented faculty make it all possible.

The school “crimes”* cited as psossibly holding boys back are not good for girls either. Schools can’t fix society’s ills but they can work to try and not add to them.

*Here are those possible culprits named in the Newsweek article:


  • An obsession with narrowly defined measures of school success
  • High anxiety standardized tests, test scores and achievement measures
  • The public nature of failure and defeat in the face of those demands that allow for success for the few in narrow ways
  • A rigid curriculum
  • Inflexible, one-size-fits-all teaching and an isistence on standardized teachers to go with the tests. States telling teachers what to say and when to say it 
  • High ratios of students to teachers
  • Insufficient PE, recess and free play
  • Limited opportunities for leadership and risk-taking.

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