Missing the point

A new report declares that a “boy crisis” in education doesn’t exist and that both sexes are about equal in their standardized tests scores. At least that’s the analysis of 40 years of these tests by the American Association of University Women, which promotes gender equity for women.

So much for those of us who have doggedly maintained that single-sex education — bitterly opposed by some women groups — is far better in the below high school grades, when boys and girls would seem to learn at a distinctly different pace, one that puts male pupils at a disadvantage. But then our contentions are unsubstantiated by anything other than personal experience, clearly making them invalid. Observations from the parenting and grand parenting of 13 children hardly can compare with certified academic analysis.

The study states that success in school depends more on family income and ethnicity (African and Hispanic Americans do worse, it says) than any sign that female teachers might quite naturally possess traits and skills in exercising their craft that are far more favorable to girls. It is a myth apparently that the verbal and cognitive abilities come earlier to girls, that their attention spans are longer and their understanding of written assignments generally keener than those of their male counterparts of the same age and that boys exposed to male teachers do well.

Those boys who don’t progress at the same speed are, as we all know, “late bloomers.” There is nothing to worry about as the AAUW study of the tests from fourth grade to college shows. Junior as we all know will come along even if he is now fidgeting, pounding on his seatmate, or staring out the window as if in a trance even when not zonked out on some anti-hyper drug. He is just a bit of a dreamer who ultimately will overcome these traits and turn toward math and other scientific disciplines with such fervor as to completely overwhelm any female competitor.

Like boxers, education theorists spend a great deal of their time jabbing and counterpunching one another with tests and studies to build support for their opinions on how to save the public schools. In the process much of what is just plain common sense disappears in a welter of statistics that appear irrefutable, if obvious, but completely miss the point. Boys do catch up, given half a chance. Girls certainly can be superlative mathematicians (my daughter is one), and parental support is obviously vitally important to academic progress. Children of families who can afford books and other educational tools are bound to do better. How startling is that?

But the elusive point is that despite all the stats, separate classes for the sexes are a good idea in theory but are impractical it seems in reality. Why? Because those teaching the boys most likely would be women, not the males that could both understand their charges and provide them with authoritative role models. The public school system from the first to the ninth grades has been the overwhelming domain of women for a variety of reasons. This matriarchal society subconsciously has created an atmosphere, set an agenda and established the standards that clearly favor girls, at least in the early stages. There is nothing sinister about this and they will deny it until hell freezes over. But every parent with a mixed household of children who is paying attention can attest to its authenticity.

Is there a crisis with boys? Probably not. However, there is a need to understand that many, if not most, little boys would do much better in their own element, one that approaches their early learning with an understanding of their strengths. How many boys turn off education early on because they feel inferior to girls who dominate the discussion, get far better grades and move ahead rapidly in their development is anyone’s guess, including the AAUW’s. At the same time, girls would be better off unencumbered by a daily regimen that includes having to wait until junior catches up.

There is nothing sexist in single sex education. It is just a practical solution that probably will never come about in any widespread way. The social interplay between the genders at that level can be accomplished in a variety of ways including recess and mixed activities during and after school. But again this isn’t likely to take place anytime soon, certainly not as long as there are studies like the AAUW’s that miss the point.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)


  1. KC

    I was deeply disturbed by the virtriole and lack of substantiation in your article. You accuse the AAUW of misinterpreting 40 years of test results, yet base your own very strong opinions on little more than personal experience — as though your experience is the same as that of all boys, now and in the past. Having just read the report myself, I have to wonder if you did, because the tenor of the report is about equity for both boys and girls. You have misrepresented the purpose and information in the article to suit your own ends.

    The elusive point is not that all boys and all girls need to be educated separately. It’s that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all boys (or girls) solution, single gender classes included. You give your own agenda away when you indicate that women are incapable of teaching boys effectively, in part because they cannot provide them with “authoritarian role models.”

    One wonders if you might also benefit from looking at the bigger picture, as the AAUW report does. If you are interested in what large-scale research studies have said about boys and learning, please consult the following resources:

    Alloway, N., Freebody, P., Gilbert, P., & Muspratt, S. (2002). Boys, literacy and schooling: Expanding the repertoires of practice. Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth Department of Education, Science, & Training. Retrieved on June 27, 2007, from http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/publications/ 2002/boyseducation/BoysLiteracy.pdf

    Canberra House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training. (2002, October). Boys: Getting it right. Report on the inquiry into the education of boys. Canberra, Australia: The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.

    Martin, A. J. (2002, December). Improving the educational outcomes of boys: Final report to ACT Department of Education, Youth and Family Services. Canberra, Australia: Department of Education, Youth and Family Services. Retrieved on June 27, 2007, from http://www.det.act.gov.au/publicat/pdf/ Ed_Outcomes_Boys.pdf

    Mead, S. (2006, June 27). The evidence suggests otherwise. Washington, D.C.: Education Sector

    As an educator and parent, what disturbs me the most is your use of this very public forum to demonstrate precisely the kind of rigid, uninformed thinking that is supposedly in service of boys’ needs, yet cloaks a devisive underlying agenda designed to undermine the quality of research-based thinking that threatens your unexamined perspective.