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NM boys lag behind girls in academics

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

When it comes to academics, New Mexico’s boys lag behind the girls.

The difference in public schools’ statewide four-year graduation rates between boys and girls in 2013 was 9 percentage points.

And on the most recent Standards Based Assessment, New Mexico’s largest standardized test, boys scored about 9.9 percentage points below girls in reading scores. In math, they were about even.

Local school officials say they recognize an achievement gap exists between boys and girls – as well as gaps among other groups of students.

“We know that there is not only a gender gap, but also a racial gap and a socioeconomic gap,” said Joseph Escobedo, Albuquerque Public Schools chief of staff for the superintendent.

The district is seeking ways to address the issue, especially among “boys of color.” He said the district has already adopted an initiative that aims to close the achievement gap between minority males and their classmates.

What’s going on in New Mexico mirrors a national trend, said Peg Tyre, author of “The Trouble with Boys,” a book on the gender gap in American education.

“Boys in every demographic area trail behind girls in an apples to apples comparison,” she told the Journal, noting the gap is even greater among poor students.a00_jd_16nov_STATE_Gender_Grad-Rates a00_jd_16nov_APS_Gender_Grad-rates

The consequences of the gender gap – fewer young men attending college or finding jobs – should concern everyone, Tyre said.

“We have a tremendous amount of young men who are not engaged in school and not engaged in work,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a prescription for a healthy country.”

A big divide

The statewide four-year graduation rates in 2013, the last year data is available, for girls was 74.9 percent compared with 65.9 percent for boys.

As for math and reading proficiency, New Mexico’s boys and girls overall continue to score low. But in reading, boys score even lower than girls.

On the most recent Standards Based Assessment, the state’s largest standardized test, 54.0 percent of girls scored at or above grade level in reading compared with 44.1 percent of boys.

In math, 40.8 percent of girls hit the mark compared with 40.7 percent of boys.

Albuquerque Public Schools stats mirror the state and national trends regarding the gap between boys and girls. APS already has an initiative focusing on minority boys.

“… tests scores are telling us our boys of color aren’t doing very well,” said APS school board President Analee Maestas at a recent meeting. “And we don’t only have to use our test scores. Our prisons can also tell the story.”

She was discussing APS’ boys of color initiative, which is focused on preparing “males of color” for college and other careers, and to lower their dropout and suspension rates.

The local effort is part of a larger collaboration among 60 school districts across the country, the White House, the Council of the Great City Schools and the U.S. Department of Education.

As part of the initiative, APS will make public an “equity scorecard” that will contain a host of data showing how males of color are faring in the district, Escobedo said.

Why is there a gap?

Experts interviewed by the Journal pointed to several trends they believe contribute to the gap, including:

  • Classroom behavioral policies that disproportionately affect boys.
  • Literacy curriculum that tends to benefit girls.
  • And cultural norms that push boys to emulate masculine attitudes that downplay the importance of trying hard in school.

“We can see clearly the classroom is not set up for (boys),” said Michael Gurian, a family therapist and author of “The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life.”

Schools often require students to sit for long periods and quietly listen at their desks, which literally doesn’t sit well with many boys who are naturally active, he told the Journal.

Tyre said boys are also more likely to be punished for acting up, being rowdy or breaking a classroom rule.

Over time, this can “push boys to the margins,” Tyre said, and by middle school many boys are disengaged.

Tyre and Gurian also said English classes tend to be taught in ways that favor girls. Tyre said teachers often focus on “personal narrative,” which doesn’t appeal to boys as much as girls. That’s in part because boys are told to be tough and personal narrative doesn’t appear tough to boys, she said.

One way to address the gender gap is single-gender classrooms, said Reid Nunn, a fourth and fifth grade teacher at Coral Community Charter Schools, in Albuquerque, which uses single-gender classrooms.

“When you separate classrooms by gender, you have more commonalities in learning styles. You can use best practices (such as allowing for movement and a higher tolerance for noise) more widely as they work for a larger group of students,” Nunn said.

Nunn said boys should be allowed to be a little noisy in class and to fidget because this is natural to them.

He added there are some students who learn better in co-ed classrooms, but parents should have the choice between sending their children to a single-gender or co-ed classroom.

Difference in the brain?

There is disagreement over how much biological differences play into the gender gap.

Gurian, for instance, contends teachers are not aware enough of hardwired differences between the brains of boys and girls that cause them to learn differently.

“These boys are raised in a system that doesn’t understand who they are,” he said, adding that teachers are not taught about mental differences between boys and girls and should be so both genders can be taught well.

Not everyone, however, agrees biological differences play such an important role.

Notions that boys’ and girls’ brains differ significantly as it pertains to learning amount to junk science, said Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and an associate professor at the Chicago Medical School.

In her book, “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” Eliot said innate differences in the brains of boys and girls are relatively minor and that social and cultural factors play a much larger role in causing gender gaps.

The differences in the brains of young boys and girls are relatively small to start, Eliot said.

But those differences are exacerbated over time, in part, because young boys and girls “naturally segregate,” she said.

Unlike Nunn, Eliot argues schools should not separate boys and girls. Rather they should encourage boys and girls to play together and to do more activities together. This would help both boys and girls learn skills and pick up the traits that are commonly associated with the other gender, Eliot said.

Not a contest

People should not blame gains made by girls for the gender gap, Eliot said.

Tyre agreed, saying it’s important the discussion over the gender gap does not turn into a boys vs. girls debate.

“Girls have caught up. That’s awesome,” she said, but there must be a way to “help boys without hurting our high-performing girls.”