Boys and Troubles in School

Most schools are not boy-friendly places and they haven’t been for a long time. I graduated from high school in 1967, so I was part of the first generation to have the rug pulled out from under us by women’s liberation. All the rules changed and we no longer knew what was “right.”We were told that men and women, boys and girls, were actually alike except for socialization practices that rigidly guided us to fill gender roles.

One of my first graduate school classes, one I needed to take for continuing certification as an elementary school teacher, was called “Sex Role Stereotyping.” Not yet a mother, I learned how the majority of differences between boys and girls were caused by society’s [unfair] sex role stereotyping. The premise was that girls could grow into women who could do anything a man could do—and girls would want to be more like men—and boys would grow into sensitive, nurturing men who were gentle and fair to women and children, took time to smell the roses, and all of us would be far better off.

Well, I’m all for equal opportunity; I really am. But, experience shows me that we simply are not all the same.

I remember when I was in 4th grade in Northeastern Ohio and my brother, Tom, was in 3rd grade right across the hall from me. He was a very active little boy, very smart, and always in trouble. I found out years later that our IQs were both very high and basically the same. I did great in school—a Little Miss Goody Two Shoes kind of girl. He got paddled almost every day and then I’d go home and “tell on” him so he got in trouble at home, too. Needless to say, this had a number of negative effects on him over the years. I had no trouble sitting in my seat with hands folded while he simply could not sit still. Even though I, like my brother,  found the work repetitive and boring, I figured out how to impress my teacher and parents with my excellent work. I used the time I saved being so quick at everything so that I could, basically, run the school. My poor brother—who taught himself to read and play chess by the time he was in kindergarten—was not considered a good student and didn’t qualify for high level grouping (something most schools had in the past and don’t anymore; but that’s another story).

Then I taught school in Northern Virginia, 4th – 6th grade. For my seating plan, I found I used girls to keep boys apart. Girls seldom did anything to cause harm or disruption. At one point I realized that I’d moved almost all the boys’ desks so close to my own—so I could better supervise and engage them—that there was no more room if anyone else got out of order! Boys were simply the ones who most often got in trouble! I remember one very bright boy in particular, Tim, whose mother volunteered to help with the slower learners so that I might have more time available to work with the faster learners like her son. My position was that until he finished the grade level work I’d assigned, he hadn’t earned the opportunity to work at a more challenging—and interesting—level. Not even his mother appeared to disagree with my reasoning. Looking back, I now understand that we were wrong to take that approach.

So, what’s going on here? A growing number of people are taking notice of an education crisis among boys. This education crisis is particularly and painfully true for many of our smartest boys. The number of boys deciding to go on to and then finish college is dropping compared to girls.

I have to admit that it wasn’t my brother’s school experiences, or my own as a teacher, that initially opened my eyes to this boys-and-schools problem. It was being the mother of three boys myself. I got a dose of reality about the nature of boys compared to girls—one that hit home enough to make me question what I’d learned in my sex role stereotyping class. As I sat on the sofa of my home in Fargo, ND, watching half a dozen little boys tumble and cavort and run around at my 4 year old’s birthday party, three little girls sat with me on the sofa. Four years old! They were like this; no one told them to sit demurely. Over the years I noticed, too, that I perpetually played the role of [bored] audience while my sons played video games at home or in the lobby of the movie theater or the arcade or [horrors!] Chuck E. Cheese. I could have played, too, but I didn’t want to. I hardly ever saw a girl play. Not because they were excluded but because they weren’t interested. And they weren’t interested from a very early age, before anyone could tell them they were or weren’t “good enough” to play boys’ games.

Between the time I taught school in the early ‘70’s and the time my own children started school, the three reading groups and three math groups concept, the ability grouping and tracking approach systems, had largely been dismantled. It was widely believed that were it not for lack of opportunity, all children would pretty be much be “on the same page” academically if teachers were trained properly. It became widely accepted that when children are ability grouped or tracked, we arbitrarily limit their potential and possibilities. Well, that’s simply not true. When girls are ahead or bored in school, they adapt to the situation by using it to their advantage. When boys are ahead (or very behind), they become bored, restless and often act out. This is simply, as it turns out, in the nature of most girls and boys.

In my own professional work now, I have learned that personality profiles make a difference in how a student will react to inappropriate pace and instruction at school, but it still boils down to this: boys in general are not as flexible, adaptive, or malleable as girls and they are more overtly harmed by the way we “do school” than girls are.

Yet the myth persists that girls need help and support in school and boys get all the advantages.

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10 Responses to “Boys and Troubles in School”

  1. The Princess Mom Says:

    “It was widely believed that were it not for lack of opportunity, all children would pretty be much be “on the same page” academically if teachers were trained properly.” Unfortunately, this idea has not changed in the last 30 years. I just read the same thing in today’s NYT regarding the “achievement gap” between white and non-white children on NAEP.

  2. Sally Says:

    I completely agree with the post, and have a (gasp) 2E son about to head into Kindergarten. What kinds of things do you suggest to bridge the gap for boys with these issues? Malleability–not a strong point of his to put it lightly.

    • Deborah Ruf Says:

      I recommend a school situation where children get plenty of opportunities to move around, use their hands, and be with others who “get” them. This means that — for the inexperienced, naturally immature young child — a classroom or school setting that has many people who as much like you as possible. Allow yourselves, you and your children, to experience all kinds of diversity (intellectual, ethnic, socioeconomic, values, religion, etc.) in as many venues as possible, but too much intellectual diversity in your young child’s classroom can lead to leaving him lonely, bored, and — sad to say — uncooperative.

  3. Karen Says:

    When we differentiate instruction we are essentially tracking the kids. We are just giving a single teacher more work to do and the kids get to meet the kids tracked in other groups. Do any experienced educators disagree?

    • Deborah Ruf Says:

      I’m an experienced educator and I love ability grouping and tracking. It actually makes the teachers’ jobs more straightforward and less cumbersome and it gives all children a better chance of being instructed at their own level and pace. Research shows it is one of the most effective ways to meet the needs of students across the board. Read Kulik and Kulik, K. Rogers, and many, many more. I will be writing more on all of this in the future.

  4. Val Says:

    It’s true that boys get rambunctious and act out more than girls, but it’s unfair to say that we have a crisis in *boys’* education.

    Girls, especially intelligent girls or girls who fall behind, have a crisis too. It may be a silent, better behaved one, but it’s still a crisis. Their problems are almost worse in a way, because at least boys are drawing attention to their problems when they act out. Girls get ignored (or pushed to the back of the classroom!) because they’re “good.”

    I think that people overlook these facts too easily.

    • Deborah Ruf Says:

      Dear Val: I understand what you are saying about the difficulties girls have in school, but in a blog, I try to write about one thing at a time. If we cover all caveats — or have to defend ourselves — every time we talk about a topic, we limit our ability to make valid points on anyone’s behalf (I think). The difficulties girls have are different and just as valid. How it affects their eventual adjustment and adulthoods also varies considerably from boys’ typical outcomes. Thanks for weighing in!

  5. How I Lost Thirty Póunds in Only a Month Says:

    Hi, nice post. I have been thinking about this issue,so thanks for writing. I’ll likely be coming back to your blog. Keep up great writing

  6. Plain Tie Says:

    Well…..I agree with most of the things you said. Anyway, thanks!

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