Today’s blog post was written by Jay Barry, a social studies teacher at Arlington High School. Jay has seen first hand the challenge of engaging boys in academics at the high school level. In his post, he describes that problem and his abbreviated effort to do something about it.
The Achievement Gender Gap for Boys by Jay Barry, Arlington High School
A few years ago I began to take greater notice of a trend that was becoming increasingly clear. Girls were outpacing boys academically in my high school social studies classes. I began to research the extent to which this was true throughout the school. What I found was that of the top 20% of students (based on GPA), 62% were girls. This percentage has held up since then and represents the average over the last ten years. Among teachers I spoke with at the time, many saw a school culture in which academic achievement is valued less socially among boys than it is among girls. In other words, for most boys it was not cool to do well in school, whereas this same sentiment did not seem to exist among girls. What also became evident is that this phenomenon was an emerging national trend.
The literature on this topic suggests some compelling reasons why this is happening. First, many boys stop reading for pleasure in middle school and those that are reading often choose books that do not challenge them as readers. I often see girls at school sitting with a book. Rarely do I see this with boys. Second, girls who have a close relationship with a teacher will not get negative feedback from other girls for it, but boys who do so risk being ridiculed for having such a relationship. This theory has been advocated by Dr. Leonard Sax in his book Why Gender Matters (2005). Third, girls will typically give greater effort to academic tasks because they view feedback on their performance as an evaluation of their abilities, whereas boys do not see their performance as reflecting their abilities and may not try their hardest. Over the years, when I have held review sessions before a major test, it is often all girls. When I encourage students to come by to discuss a paper assignment, many girls often do. Boys very rarely will.
These realities led me to form a group for boys called Ad Alta (had to go with a Latin phrase because everything else I could think of sounded goofy). I was only able to run the group for a couple of years but found it worthwhile and enlightening. We did a few service projects, a couple of college tours, and held morning meetings. I would bring doughnuts and juice and would try to generate discussion about topics I felt were important. This was not always an easy task, but several boys related experiences that highlighted the gender divide. One story that stands out is that of a boy who had often been made fun of by friends for telling them that he had to go home to do homework. It’s hard to imagine this same scenario playing out with girls. It was clear to me then and now that there is a stigma attached to certain boys who take their schoolwork seriously.
By Jay Barry, Arlington High School