Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Girls and Boys and Schools

An article in the Washington Post on Monday discussed a new study on that favorite topic of the anti-feminists: the troubles of boys at school:

A study to be released today looking at long-term trends in test scores and academic success argues that widespread reports of U.S. boys being in crisis are greatly overstated and that young males in school are in many ways doing better than ever.

Using data compiled from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally funded accounting of student achievement since 1971, the Washington-based think tank Education Sector found that, over the past three decades, boys' test scores are mostly up, more boys are going to college and more are getting bachelor's degrees.

Although low-income boys, like low-income girls, are lagging behind middle-class students, boys are scoring significant gains in elementary and middle school and are much better prepared for college, the report says. It concludes that much of the pessimism about young males seems to derive from inadequate research, sloppy analysis and discomfort with the fact that although the average boy is doing better, the average girl has gotten ahead of him.

"The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse," the report says, "it's good news about girls doing better.

A number of articles have been written over the past year lamenting how boys have fallen behind. The new report, "The Truth About Boys and Girls," explains why some educators think this emphasis is misplaced and why some fear a focus on sex differences could sidetrack federal, state and private efforts to put more resources into inner-city and rural schools, where both boys and girls need better instruction.

"There's no doubt that some groups of boys -- particularly Hispanic and black boys and boys from low-income homes -- are in real trouble," Education Sector senior policy analyst Sara Mead says in the report. "But the predominant issues for them are race and class, not gender."

(Bolds mine.)

The article also notes the political angles to this question:

The "boy crisis," the report says, has been used by conservative authors who accuse "misguided feminists" of lavishing resources on female students at the expense of males and by liberal authors who say schools are "forcing all children into a teacher-led pedagogical box that is particularly ill-suited to boys' interests and learning styles."

"Yet there is not sufficient evidence -- or the right kind of evidence -- available to draw firm conclusions," the report says. "As a result, there is a sort of free market for theories about why boys are underperforming girls in school, with parents, educators, media, and the public choosing to give credence to the explanations that are the best marketed and that most appeal to their pre-existing preferences."

The optimist in me now expects a raised level of discussions on this topic. The realist in me knows that discussions will still be about the evil feminists and about the assumed zero-sum game between boys and girls.

And about the benefits of single-sex education, which for the wingnuts include the opportunity to mold boys into godly macho men and girls into helpmeets for the same, I suspect. Their expressed arguments for single-sex education are different, of course, and mostly about how much better the education turns out to be if boys and girls are taught separately. But a recent British study casts some doubt on this:

BOYS and girls are no more likely to achieve better results when they are educated in separate schools than together, according to a study of the way children learn.

Girls' schools consistently top the league tables at GCSE and A level — which the author suggests is attributable to selection and background, rather than gender.

Advocates of single-sex schooling argue that children achieve more academically when they are taught separately. After reviewing a decade of international and national research, Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, says that the evidence does not support this view.

"On performance, there is no evidence that girls will get better results in a single sex than a co-educational school. The same is true for boys," Professor Smithers said. "The girls' schools feature highly in the league tables because they are highly selective, their children come from particular social backgrounds and they have excellent teachers."

That last sentence is an important one, as it applies even more generally, and reminds us that there are many reasons why one particular school might perform better than another school. For example, Harvard is a "good" university partly because it attracts very good students. These students would most likely do well in any university they choose, which means that some of the assumed effects of superior Harvard education are really not caused by anything at Harvard.

This same selection bias explains at least partially why traditionally all-women colleges appear to have performed very well. These colleges attracted the very best high-income students in the past, and these students then often had brilliant careers. It is hard to determine which part of those careers could be attributable to the actual training the all-women colleges provided.