Weighing gender in school reform is tricky

Posted Nov. 14, 2011, at 5:57 p.m.

Parents with both male and female offspring don’t get their brains in a knot over the nature versus nurture question. It’s not parents that make boys want to start a pillow fight in the cozy reading nook the girls have set up in the classroom loft. It’s not society that makes a boy want to unfold a girl’s carefully crafted origami swan to see how it was made. It’s that pesky Y chromosome.

Thinking about gender can stray dangerously close to easy stereotypes. Those stereotypes can lead to bad public policy. But with that caveat, the assertion can be made confidently that boys and girls engage the world in very different ways. As we rethink and retool our education systems, gender considerations should factor into the discussion.

Join us here from 10 a.m. to noon at The Maine Debate to consider the gender card in education.

“Seventy percent of all dropouts in Maine are boys,” said Willam Shuttleworth, superintendent of the Five Town Community School District in the Camden-Rockport area. He also notes that 70 percent of students sent to detention are boys, while 70 percent of Maine’s top achieving students are girls.

“We’re not meeting the needs of our boys. I’m concerned about it,” the superintendent said recently.

That sentiment has been expressed frequently in recent years. The thumbnail sketch version is that the masculine mind explores the world by moving through it, and the school model has students sitting in rows of desks; the male mind prefers hands-on learning, and the school model relies on lecturing; boys are impulsive and inclined to blurt out their answers and school asks them to raise their hands and wait.

This is a reversal of concerns expressed in the 1960s and 1970s about lower educational aspirations and avenues of achievement for girls.

At the Five Town CSD’s Rockport Elementary School, a third-grade class has been created for boys only. This gender segregation may help boys achieve in an environment conducive to their particular way of learning. Or it may merely remove some of the framework traditional classrooms use while producing no better results, as one study showed. In other words, just because boys can bounce out of their seats doesn’t mean they are learning more.

Another educational reform trend aimed to simplify the highly fraught issues of relative family wealth and sexuality in the classroom. The idea was that mandating boys and girls wear uniforms to school they would be liberated from the peer pressure to own the trendy but expensive shoes or clothes. They then would waste less time critiquing each other’s wardrobe and instead focus on learning. And boys would be less distracted by the girls who wore modest uniforms instead of sexually provocative clothing.

It certainly helped ease parent budgets. But after an early study showed the benefits of uniforms — winning the support of then-President Bill Clinton — subsequent studies revealed there was little impact on learning.

Clearly, boys and girls are different. And clearly, many of our educational conventions rely on antiquated information; in fact, some of those conventions, such as closing schools in the summer, have no basis in the 21st century. But how far can reformers go in factoring gender into new approaches?

Join us at The Maine Debate.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/11/14/opinion/weighing-gender-in-school-reform-is-tricky/ printed on September 18, 2014