credit: onlineschoolscenter.com

credit: onlineschoolscenter.com

Men and women are the same. If this in any way sounds reasonable to you, you’re probably reading the wrong article and you are about to be triggered, microaggressed, nose-thumbed, raspberried, and in general made to look in the mirror where you will recoil at an image at once horrible and pathetic.

There are any number of people determined to argue that men and women are essentially identical. Some go so far as to deny there are any biological differences. These views are, of course, political and ideological, and profoundly stupid. They are also, to whatever degree they are able to influence policy, destructive.

As a teacher of high school English, I have no doubt about the enormous differences in men and women, physical, emotional, biological, and intellectual. I write this because it is during the high school years that these differences are dramatically apparent, and particularly so in reading and writing. Mathematics too tends to be a separator of male and female tendencies and strengths, but if like me, when gazing at equations, you fail to grasp the inherent beauty of the universe, I’ll stick with English.

I recently came across an Atlantic article from back in September of 2014 that deals with these issues: 

As the new school year ramps up, teachers and parents need to be reminded of a well-kept secret: Across all grade levels and academic subjects, girls earn higher grades than boys. Not just in the United States, but across the globe, in countries as far afield as Norway and Hong Kong.

This finding is reflected in a recent study by psychology professors Daniel and Susan Voyer at the University of New Brunswick. The Voyers based their results on a meta-analysis of 369 studies involving the academic grades of over one million boys and girls from 30 different nations. The findings are unquestionably robust: Girls earn higher grades in every subject, including the science-related fields where boys are thought to surpass them.

It’s unsurprising–at least to those paying attention–that more women than men are enrolling in college these days. The Atlantic article also deals with a topic gaining more credence these days: schools may be oriented toward girls and in so doing, harming boys.

This begs a sensitive question: Are schools set up to favor the way girls learn and trip up boys?

Girls succeed over boys in school because they are more apt to plan ahead, set academic goals, and put effort into achieving those goals.

Let’s start with kindergarten. Claire Cameron Ponitz from the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia has dedicated her career to studying kindergarten readiness in kids. She’s found that little ones who are destined to do well in a typical 21st century kindergarten class are those who manifest good self-regulation. This is a term that is bandied about a great deal these days by teachers and psychologists. It 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.

Unsurprisingly, at least to teachers, are the results of research into this phenomenon:

By the end of kindergarten, boys were just beginning to acquire the self-regulatory skills with which girls had started the year.

This self-discipline edge for girls carries into middle-school and beyond. In a 2006 landmark study, Martin Seligman and Angela Lee Duckworth found that middle-school girls edge out boys in overall self-discipline. This contributes greatly to their better grades across all subjects. They found that girls are more adept at ‘reading test instructions before proceeding to the questions,’ ‘paying attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming,’ ‘choosing homework over TV,’ and ‘persisting on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration.’ These 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.

I am often dismissive of what passes for research in education, as much of it is poorly done and is used primarily sell various educational fads by slapping on a “research-based” label. However, I find these conclusions to be generally valid. At the recent graduation of the class of 2015 in my mid-sized Texas high school, every one of the highest achieving students was female. There were a few males here and there, but the top ranks were all girls. This is hardly unusual.

These days, the whole school experience seems to play right into most girls’ strengths—and most boys’ weaknesses. Gone are the days when you could blow off a series of homework assignments throughout the semester but pull through with a respectable grade by cramming for and acing that all-important mid-term exam. Getting good grades today is far more about keeping up with and producing quality homework—not to mention handing it in on time.

Gwen Kenney-Benson, a psychology professor at Allegheny College, a liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania, says 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.

This is an interesting observation. In high school, girls do tend to be far more academically oriented in virtually every way. There are, of course, boys who are also academically oriented, but there are far more girls with that mindset. Girls also tend to be more able to pay attention, sit quietly for longer periods, focus on academic tasks, and be at least somewhat interested in pleasing the adults in their lives. It is for this reason that I maintain a “noteworthy writing” board, where I post, on a regular basis, the excellent writings of my students. Most tend to be produced by girls.

On the whole, boys approach schoolwork differently. They are more performance-oriented. Studying for and taking tests taps into their competitive instincts. For many boys, tests are quests that get their hearts pounding. Doing well on them is a public demonstration of excellence and an occasion for a high-five. In contrast, Kenney-Benson and some fellow academics provide evidence that the stress many girls experience in test situations can artificially lower their performance, giving a false reading of their true abilities. These researchers arrive at the following overarching conclusion: ‘The testing situation may underestimate girls’ abilities, but the classroom may underestimate boys’ abilities.

This too is generally correct. Interestingly, many kids, particularly boys, who are failing in their normal school grades, manage to pass high stakes, mandatory tests. I do not, however, fully agree with the idea that this is so because of a competitive instinct that girl’s lack. Kids are able to focus on tasks of overriding importance. Knowing their ability to graduate from high school depends on passing a test tends to focus one’s attention. Most students do not lack academic ability and intelligence; they lack motivation. When it matters to them, they can perform. When it doesn’t, which usually involves daily assignments, they don’t. Here’s where the article goes off the rails:

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.

Note that it’s being assumed that teachers factor disciplinary issues into academic grades. Not in competent, professional schools. Such things are strictly separate. If we do not factor in grades for homework or assignments, how is it we have any idea of their knowledge? Here too, is another problem:

This last point was of particular interest to me. On countless occasions, I have attended school meetings for boy clients of mine who are in an ADHD red-zone. I have learned to request a grade print-out in advance. Not uncommonly, there is a checkered history of radically different grades: A, A, A, B, B, F, F, A. When F grades and a resultant zero points are given for late or missing assignments, a student’s C grade does not reflect his academic performance. 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. In one survey by Conni Campbell, associate dean of the School of Education at Point Loma Nazarene University, 84 percent of teachers did just that.

Why yes, I do assign a zero when an assignment is not turned in. However, in my school district, there really is no such thing as late work. Work one day late can still earn 75% and two days late, 50%. Only when it’s three days late does a zero apply. Often, I give kids substantially more time to turn in late work than our rules require, and higher grades for it as well.  Consider that I have as many as 42 assignments in a six-week period, for a total of 4200 available points. If a student fails to turn in five, or in many cases, more, assignments they can still easily pass. None of my students have ever failed because they were unable to do the work, but because they didn’t turn in sufficient work to pass, and they have the opportunity to do the work in class probably 80% of the time. Usually, this affects boys more than girls.

the problem is that school teaches more than mere content. Among the lessons kids are expected to learn are organization, focus, study skills, and the specific skills necessary to reading and writing more effectively. If they do not do that work, they don’t progress. Grades are merely a reflection of their degree of academic growth, not the point of education.  Observing that boys and girls are different is not enough.  All must, at some point, perform.

Much of this “research” misses the point. Yes, boys are more active, less focused and in general, more easily distracted than girls, but all can learn, and as long as a teacher makes necessary adjustments–which must be done for individuals, not merely genders–at some point, kids have to produce. As hard as it is for some to accept, the primary responsibility for learning falls to the student and their parents.

All teachers can do is to provide the best learning opportunity their abilities and resources make possible. The rest is up to the individual, male or female. It was ever thus.

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