Does School Really Serve Girls Better?

boys and girls learning side by side

I believe in that everyone should have the same opportunities available to them. I could finish that statement with a resounding “regardless of gender, race, religion, physical and mental differences, sexual orientation, wealth, ethnic background…” but I would surely leave something out. My point is that I firmly believe with all of my being that every person deserves the same opportunities in life. Regardless of everything.

I also believe that this is not our current reality. I believe that some people enter life with the card stacked against them. And I think  it is our responsibility, as a community, to respect the different paths some people may need to have available to them in order to reach the same finish line.

There’s been a lot of discussion about boys and girls and education lately. It’s an ongoing discussion, but it has resurfaced recently with the recent opinion column by Christina Hoff Sommers which the New York Times published early in February of this year. Ms. Sommers is the author of the book The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men, which originally bore the subtitle “How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men.” Though Ms. Sommers says that she regrets the earlier title and the updated edition clarifies her intended emphasis on the concept of “misguided,” her point of view is very much based in differences between boys and girls.

Ms. Sommers begins her op-ed in the Times by pointing out that “Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college.” She then goes on to speculate that this is due to teachers incorporating “good behavior” into progress assessments and report cards. And, she claims, “girls, as a rule, comport themselves far better than boys.”

I am the mother of a daughter and a son, both of whom are enrolled in the same New York City public school. My daughter lands in the  “above-average” grouping on standardized tests, and is assessed by her teachers as doing well, though not meeting her potential. Her biggest challenge is learning to use her voice in group settings. While she is a natural leader in small groups, in large group settings, she tends to remain silent, often smuggling a book into her lap to read. But since this isn’t disruptive, it is seen as rather charming and overlooked.

My son is not reaching his potential because he can’t sit still. Before he even started kindergarten, he was assessed to be at the grade 2 level in reading and math. But he runs in circles and when he’s asked to draw the worm they’re studying in science class,  he draws the worm being attacked by Ninjas and covers the entire page with the bold emotive strokes of their battle. He moves around, takes books from shelves and climbs inside the shelf, he peels stickers off of book covers, he sings to himself. He disrupts the class and he is not meeting his potential.

Ms. Sommers postulates that more recess (“where boys can engage in rough-and-tumble as as respite from classroom routine”) can benefit boys. I recently learned that the New York City Board of Education requires all students in grades K-3 to have 30 minutes of physical education 5 days a week. That is reduced to 30 minutes 3 days a week for higher grades. More than half of New York City public and private schools are not complying with this mandate. The school my children attend doesn’t have a physical education teacher at all. The classroom teachers or parent volunteers take on the responsibility for phys ed, and it’s scheduled once a week.

Would more time each day dedicated  to physical education benefit my son and the other boys in his school? Possibly. On the other hand, my daydreaming girl who buries her head in a book during recess may not appear to need to engage in “rough-and-tumble” but physical education does more than just burn off energy – it helps one focus. It gives one the core strength to sit in a chair all day long and not slouch, squirm, shift positions, and other physical attributes that can contribute to distraction in the classroom.

So while I would agree with Ms. Sommers that misguided policies are harming our young men, I’d take it a step further. They’re harming our young women, too. Earlier I noted that Ms. Sommers opened her Times op-ed by telling us that “Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college.” I would also like to point out is that girls score as well as or lower than boys on most standardized tests, yet they are far more likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college. And despite these grades, advanced classes, and higher education, women are still earning less and suffering more sexual harassment and discrimination both in and out of the workplace.

Jim Naureckas of FAIR points out that “Sommers labels as “understandable but misguided” the attitude, “Isn’t it time for women and girls to enjoy the advantages?” A more pertinent question to ask Sommers, though, is what advantages are women enjoying that suggest boys deserve an extra boost? After all, women who work full-time still make only 81 percent of what men do. And women own only 36 percent as much wealth as men do. Only 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, as are 17 percent of directors on Fortune 500 boards. Women are 18 percent of U.S. representatives and 20 percent of U.S. senators.”

When my daughter, in third grade at the time, first learned about the Girl Scouts, she said, “there are no girl things and boy things. I really hate it when people say that. Why can’t it just be Girl AND Boy Scouts?” After I fumbled for a while to find an answer, I turned it around and asked her if she could see any good reason for girls having their own activity without any boys. She started by telling me that there was absolutely no reason to separate boys and girls, and the more she cited examples to demonstrate her point, the more she herself found her point crumbling. By the time she got to “well, the boys are more energetic and loud in class so when the teacher asks what project we should work on next, the boys all jump up and yell out suggestions. The girls just aren’t that loud, and also, we’re happy to do whatever. So we just let them jump up and down and fight about their ideas and we just do whatever they decide on.” And then she asked me how we go about starting a Girl Scouts Troop at her school. Which we did, this year.

 The Children’s Arts Guild in New York City offers after school programs and summer activities for boys only. But rather than continuing along the traditional stereotyping that supposes that boys simply need a place to “rough-and-tumble,” the Children’s Arts Guild goes a step further.  Through the arts, boys are given a space to explore their emotional experiences as well as their physical ones. As their website states, “Among the most damaging stereotypes that inform the socialization of boys is the traditional societal view of human emotions as essentially gendered. In spite of the progress we have made in recognizing that boys and girls need to have access to the full range of emotions to grow into well-adjusted adults, we still persist in giving children the message that girls feel and boys do.”

I think that by now we can all acknowledge that differences between boys and girls exist. I also believe that as a society, we are benefitted by offering both boys and girls the opportunities they need to grow and develop into respectful, educated adults. But we are sending mixed messages. We scold a boy for being rambunctious and we mock him when he is sensitive. We call a girl well-behaved when she refrains from disruption and then we punish her in the workplace for not being sufficiently assertive. We need to empower both boys and girls to express themselves openly and honestly. We need to offer children the space they need to run and jump and play and cry and read and draw. We need to encourage children to express their opinions and we need to force ourselves to listen to them.

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Posted in Education, Opinion

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