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One popular strategy to help boys succeed in school: Just expect less from them

Dustin Dwyer

If you follow our work here on State of Opportunity, it will not be news to hear that girls currently outperform boys on most academic measures

A piecepublished a few days ago over at The Atlantic points out that this isn't just an American phenomenon; girls are doing better than boys in schools all around the world. This disparity has immense consequences for our education system, in part because, as I reported last year in our documentary "Be A Man," gender acts as a multiplying factor for other types of educational achievement gaps. The gaps we see between students based on family income and race are both much worse for males than females. If we want to tackle these achievement gaps, we can't ignore gender. 

So how can we help boys catch up to girls in school? One idea that seems to have a lot of traction lately is just to let boys get away with doing less. 

The latest example of this comes from The Atlantic piece I mentioned above. In it, writer Enrico Gnaulati, himself a clinical psychologist, points to research showing that boys exhibit less self-control in the classroom than girls as early as kindergarten.

As we've reported before, being able to control your impulses and emotions is critical to success in the classroom. The big push behind preschool funding in the past few years is all about teaching kids these kinds of skills early. Preschool does teach kids their ABCs and 123s, but research shows that the training in conscientiousness, persistence, and self-control that has the most long-term benefit. 

But Gnaulati argues that, when it comes to boys, the cause of teaching self-control is lost before it's even begun. To him, boys are just different than girls. By expecting boys to complete the same work, we set them up to fail. Gnaulati writes:  

Since boys tend to be less conscientious than girls – more apt to space out and leave a completed assignment at home, more likely to fail to turn the page and complete the questions on the back – a distinct fairness issue comes into play when a boy’s occasional lapse results in a low grade. Sadly though, it appears that the overwhelming trend among teachers is to assign zero points for late work.

Gnaulati argues that turning in work late, or not at all, shouldn't matter as much in the student's final grade if they manage to "pull through" on exams in the end. He offers up new grading policies at one middle school in Minnesota as an example of how to do this right. The school started offering grades in two different categories of learning: a "life skills grade" and a "knowledge grade." Gnaulati continues: 

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.

I can't help but wonder how this proposed "revamping" would be seen if Gnaulati were proposing it as a solution to any other kind of achievement gap. Would anyone ever argue that the way to help African American students succeed in school is to stop expecting them to turn their homework in on time? What if we stopped "downgrading" low-income kids for such transgressions as "poking the kid in front?" 

When I hear people talk about achievement gaps based on income or race, they usually are talking about ways to help kids get the skills they need to erase those gaps. When I hear people talk about achievement gaps based on gender, often it seems, they're talking about changing the educational environment to benefit the student. The underlying assumption is that gender differences in learning are unchangeable, they're biologically determined. 

But that assumption has less evidence to back it up than most people realize. 

Neuroscientist Lise Eliot literally wrote the book on gender differences in early brain development. After surveying the landscape of peer-reviewed scientific studies on brains, she concluded there are differences between the brains of women and men. But those differences start small in childhood and grow much more significant with age. In an article for Scientific American, Eliot wrote: 

... just because a difference is biological doesn’t mean it is “hard-wired.” Individuals’ gender traits – their preference for masculine or feminine clothes, careers, hobbies and interpersonal styles – are inevitably shaped more by rearing and experience than is their biological sex. Likewise, their brains, which are ultimately producing all this masculine or feminine behavior, must be molded – at least to some degree – by the sum of their experiences as a boy or girl.

Eliot, whom I interviewed in 2012, didn't start her career with the intention of studying gender differences in the brain. Her true area of expertise is in brain "plasticity," that is, the brain's ability to change and grow based on experience. 

In our culture, and in most cultures around the world, boys and girls face very difference experiences growing up. It should be no surprise, then, that there brains are different as they get older. And their behaviors in the classroom reflect that.

In their 2013 book, "The Rise of Women," researchers Claudia Buchman and Thomas DiPrete argued that gender differences in learning have almost nothing to do with biology, and everything to do with expectations: 

Our research shows that boys' underperformance in school has more to do with society's norms about masculinity than with anatomy, hormones, or brain structure. In fact, boys involved in extracurricular cultural activities such as music, art, drama, and foreign languages report higher levels of school engagement and get better grades than other boys. But these cultural activities are often denigrated as unmasculine by preadolescent and adolescent boys – especially those from working- or lower-class backgrounds.

I should admit, for the sake of disclosure, that this is not a subject I ponder just for the sake of pondering. I am the father of a bright, conscientious, and adventurous four-year-old girl as well as a bright, and currently very active, 11-month-old boy. 

I am not an expert on teaching or on educational policy. But when it comes to my children, I don't intend to force my daughter to turn in her homework while I chuckle away the fact that my son has failed to turn in his. If my son resorts to "poking the kid in front" of him during class, I won't expect the teacher to brush it off, saying, "boys will be boys." 

There may very well be distinct learning differences between boys and girls as they age. But it seems worth trying to raise them up with the same expectations, rather than with excuses. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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