Monday, September 04, 2006

District 39: Girls' Fault that Boys Are Lagging Behind in School

If I was ten to fifteen years younger, I would be starting another year of elementary school at Central Elementary, a school that--to me--always seemed typically suburban. At that time, of course, I was unaware that involved parents and dedicated teachers are a luxury in this country rather than the norm. Therefore, I was surprised to learn that, were I at that same elementary school today, I would be faced with newfound ideas about gender differences between how males and females learn, ideas that would affect who my teacher was and how my class was taught. As a result of a study by Wilmette Public Schools District 39, we are hearing more of the same popular folk wisdom that the modern classroom is an atmosphere where females excel, but at the expense of oppressed males.

The Chicago Tribune does some surprisingly generous reporting on Central Elementary School's concern about supposed latent gender biases in the classroom. Some key points:
  • A male student, now a sophomore in high school, recalls that his elementary school teacher would yell at his group of friends who sat in the back of class more than she yelled at the girls. Admittedly, he "often talked and didn't pay attention in class."
  • In response to a study that shows males "lag behind" females academically, District 39 plans to "hire more male teachers, keep a long-term database of grades and test scores, build awareness among parents and teachers, and review classroom arrangements and teaching techniques."
  • "Among other things, the research told them that boys are more attuned to spatial-mechanical functioning, and girls use more of their brain for verbal and emotive functioning." (Particularly appalling is this remark: "The more words a teacher uses, the more likely boys are to `zone out,' or go into rest state," according to the Wilmette report. "The male brain is better suited for symbols, abstractions, diagrams, pictures and objects moving through space than the monotony of words."--so words, words are no longer suitable for a learning environment?!?)
  • "Researchers suggest that teachers let boys move around more in the classroom, from walking around their desks every so often to sprawling out on the floor." (That's called indoor recess, guys).
  • The report states that the percentage of male applicants who are hired as teachers is low, and that analysis suggests "the evaluation criteria used for selecting teachers may reinforce these gender disparities."

Superintendant Glen "Max" McGee assures us that "you really can teach to the way [boys] learn." Maybe I'm missing something, but I thought we've been teaching to the way boys learn since the beginning of time.

Excuses like those being made on behalf of males are rarely made on behalf of females. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote of masterfully in The Second Sex, women are the "other," meaning their behavior is compared against the standard of male behavior. Males are the independent variable, females the dependent. If males are lagging behind in school, our teaching is problematic, but if females are lagging behind in school, they just weren't cut out for academics.

I also attribute District 39's current education quandry to the larger societal trend of giving children more credit than they are due. Children are special because they are innocent, their minds are blank slates and thus much more tolerant than most adults, they are inquiring; but all of this hardly means they have their own best interests in mind. Yet, parents today increasingly defer to their children's or adolescents' judgements, from letting them run around in grocery stores yelling when they are young to facilitating their parties in the family basement, sometimes to the point of supplying them the alcohol.

In keeping with this belief that one's child can do no wrong, when s/he is called out on something by a teacher or other authority figure, the parent gets defensive. Thus, it is not the fault of a group of boys who cannot seem to listen in class because they are sitting in the back playing around (ever heard of seating charts?--first rule is never to let kids choose their seats in elementary school) but rather the fault of the teacher who cannot keep their attention. Furthermore, if the teacher is to take some disciplinary action, s/he puts himself/herself on the proverbial chopping block of the sharp wrath of the child's deluded parent.

I hopefully am not saying this without basis, because I admittedly have not been a child for many years, nor even a teen, but when on a weekly basis, I see children on the Metro treating the train as their own personal jungle gym free of parental discipline or parents letting their children cry or scream free of their scolding or complaining when asked to keep their children quiet in public, I can't help but think these small events part of a larger societal picture. If I am right, this represents a sea change in the American attitude towards children and how they should be taught, one that should make us wary, for in endlessly empowering children's less mature instincts, we are disempowering their sense of personal responsibility that they must, at a young age, learn to cultivate.


Chris said...

Maybe we should go examine going back to single-sex schools.,1,4469528.story?coll=chi-newsap_in-hed I don't see the "separate but equal" problem, because the genders truly are equal but different.

As for the kinder, it just reflects a genuine breakdown of discipline in society as a whole. Employers complain now about how poorly their just-out-of-college employees perform - it doesn't surprise me. I could get an extension for just about anything if I wanted it - and in classes it was rare that one was ever "wrong." I think that's trickled down to the elementary level on some level. The literature I've read on teaching kids how to write is somewhat ridiculous, saying that you should just let the children write what they want in order to learn how to express - teaching them how to write in any particular way or with any particular rules may be discrimanatory against their cultural background (i.e. teaching inner-city black students standard English imposes a foreign language on their own dialect). That being said, school has gotten to ba a lot more warm, fuzzy, and cuddly lately...discipline wasn't a problem when the nuns used rulers - or so I'm told.

Anonymous said...

"the genders truly are equal but different."
i am a former biology major and an m.d., and however girls and boys may differ, the overlap is greater.

when i was in public school corporal punishment was legalized in our state. i promise it did not improve education.

literature on self-expression ~ well, that depends. i was a skeptic about "invented spelling" until i read papers the first-grade teacher shared with me, and i was then persuaded. it also jibes with what i know about word recognition from learning languages like hebrew and chinese.

i have known many inner city public-school English teachers, and they all taught proper grammar and exacted classroom discipline.

back to genders differing: what about studies showing that gay men's brains overlap with women's in some functions? how is district 39 supposed to makes sure they place children with the same behaviors in the same classes, their stated goal, since they are are using "neurological differences" of girls and boys as the rationale to separate them in class?

as far as i am concerned, district 39 is enacting discriminatory practices and taking a big step backward.

however, on the subject of unlimited extensions on classwork being a bad idea, i do agree with chris.

Elaine said...

yes, I agree that it is fruitless to insist on defining male and female differences. for one thing, it is the source of all of those terrible "men are from mars, women are from venus" jokes. but more seriously, it is the source of harebrained "scientific" reasoning that has been continuously proven wrong. Isn't it interesting how an era's scientific assumptions often jibe with that era's stereotypes? I admit, I have been an enabler of the man-woman divide at times, (what woman hasn't complained about men being frustrating?), but when it comes down to it, most of that divide is socialized rather than inherent. The behaviors that people cite as distinguishing man from woman seem too complex to be so inherent (e.g. emotion versus reason).

Yes, I agree on unlimited extensions. Students need to learn how to manage their time--it is a skill that is worthwhile for life, especially as students who need extensions were often either (1) lazy or (2) too overbooked.