Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Boys Falling Behind, except in Math

A new report from the OECD shows that around the world, boys are falling behind girls in education:
Six out of 10 underachievers in the O.E.C.D. — who fail to meet the baseline standard of proficiency across the tests in math, reading and science — are boys. That includes 15 percent of American boys, compared with only 9 percent of girls. More boys than girls underperform in every country tested except Luxembourg and Liechtenstein.

Across the board, girls tend to score higher than boys in reading, which the O.E.C.D. considers the most important skill, essential for future learning.

At the bottom, the gap is enormous: The worst-performing American girls — who did worse in reading tests than 94 out of every 100 of their peers — scored 49 points more than bottom-ranked boys, a 15 percent gap. And the deficit across the O.E.C.D. was even bigger. 
The educational imbalance continues to grow at all levels. I have a bit of experience with this gap both professionally and personally. Professionally, my experience teaching at a small college has mostly involved 70% female classes. Personally, my elder daughter is thriving at a competitive college, while my eldest son dropped out of community college and my second son did him one better by dropping out of high school. (He got his GED.) Observing my sons and their friends it has been brought home to me that millions of intelligent boys find it intensely painful to sit in school and pay attention. Medicating rowdy boys on a massive scale has done very little to change this.

This worries me. All those dropout boys face grim economic statistics. It strikes me that it would be possible to create some sort of schooling that would work better for restless boys, but 1) I can't imagine Americans actually implementing such a system, and 2) maybe teaching kids to sit still and  pay attention is actually one of the most important things about school, preparing people for jobs that involve sitting still and paying attention.

On the other hand, the report shows that top math students are still mostly boys:
The gender gap in math persists, it found. Top-performing boys score higher in math than the best-performing girls in all but two of the 63 countries in which the tests were given, including the United States.

Test scores in science follow a similar, if somewhat less lopsided, pattern. And women are still steering clear of scientific careers: Across the O.E.C.D. nations, only 14 percent of young women entering college for the first time chose a science-related field, compared with 39 percent of men.
These imbalances have persisted for twenty years now in the face of the general educational superiority of girls, so whatever is causing them it is deep and powerful. I don't think sexism in math is any worse than sexism used to be in law or medicine, fields in which women are now doing at least as well as men. So I don't know what to think.


G. Verloren said...

My belief is that education has long been less concerned with whether a child actually permanently learns something, and more about how skilled/willing they are at gaming the system.

As Stephen Fry once said, "I did well on exams always, because I cheated - I had a good memory." We rely on formulaic lectures and testing for our educational systems, but the truth is that people don't learn in formulaic fashions. Individuals have different ways of grasping and retaining information, and while some kids might be very good at "sitting still and paying attention", there are untold numbers that simply aren't - and more importantly never will be, no matter how much you try to force them to become so.

To use a very simplistic analogy, we're trying to force round pegs through nothing but square holes. There's nothing wrong with square holes - they're absolutely perfect for square pegs! We should absolutely keep square holes because of that. But eventually we're going to have to consider also building round hole for the round pegs to go through, instead of stubbornly trying to force them in where they don't fit, or crudely trying to whittle them down into square shapes to make them fit.

Katya said...

This is a very complex issue that I'm not quite willing to engage at the moment, but I'd just say this:

"millions of intelligent boys [don't] find it intensely painful to sit in [in front of a computer screen playing games] and pay attention."

Computer time is spent sitting VERY still. Clearly, it's not the sitting still part that's an issue here.