Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


Edumacation in these here States of America

A couple of things, one short, one extremely long. Read at your peril!

First, our governor, Janet Napolitano, on Tuesday vetoed a bill that would have helped children learn English. She did it despite a federal judge ruling in December that Arizona doesn't do enough to help English-language learners and imposing a fine if the legislature doesn't get it worked out. So why would Napolitano veto it?

It doesn't allot enough money, in her view. Plus it allowed tuition-tax credits for private schools, which she claimed would drain resources from public schools. The plan allocated only $14 million for English learning. Napolitano wants to start at spending $45 million a year, eventually raising the ceiling to $185 million. The Republican legislature thinks this is too much money. How will we raise money to invade Iran if we're teaching all our children to speak English?

Good for Napolitano, I say. If Arizona gets fined, so be it. I marvel at people who decry illegal immigrants (and their children) and claim they don't want to "integrate" into our fine American society and then refuse to spend any money to teach them English. Idiots. Anyway, read more about the battle at the link. It's pretty interesting.

Then, on Wednesday, she vetoed a second plan. Let the fines begin!

The other education nugget this week (this is the long part of the post, by the way) is Newsweek magazine's cover story: The Trouble With Boys.

Yes, it's an article about why boys are performing poorly in school. For years, we've heard how girls are performing poorly in school. Now, it's the boys' turn! I was simply going to link to the article and the various commentaries on it, but since I was a teacher once, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I thought I'd take a stab at addressing some of the points raised in the article and some of the reactions to it across the tiny section of the blogosphere that I encountered.

First, the article. It's very interesting - I encourage you to read it. If you don't feel like it, however, that's okay, because I am here to summarize for you!

A few random quotes:

In elementary school, boys are two times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and twice as likely to be placed in special-education classes.

This is very interesting. I don't know if I have mentioned this on this blog or my other one, but Mia is the only girl in her pre-school special education class. In her class are six other boys, and I think the other class has five boys in it. One of the boys has autism. One of the boys is Hispanic and therefore needs to learn English. I have not deduced why the rest of them are in the class (and I'm not about to ask, either). Mia and the boy with autism appear to be the only ones with serious handicaps. Are the rest, perhaps, being judged on a "girls'" standard and are therefore deemed somehow insufficient? I don't know.

Could the problem be biological? Some people seem to think so:

New studies show that prenatal exposure to male sex hormones directly affects the way children play. Girls whose mothers have high levels of testosterone during pregnancy are more likely to prefer playing with trucks to playing with dolls. There are also clues that hormones influence the way we learn all through life. In a Dutch study published in 1994, doctors found that when males were given female hormones, their spatial skills dropped but their verbal skills improved.

Primatologists have long observed that juvenile male chimps battle each other not just for food and females, but to establish and maintain their place in the hierarchy of the tribe. Primates face off against each other rather than appear weak. That same evolutionary imperative, psychologists say, can make it hard for boys to thrive in middle school - and difficult for boys who are failing to accept the help they need. The transition to middle school is rarely easy, but like the juvenile primates they are, middle-school boys will do almost anything to avoid admitting that they're overwhelmed. "Boys measure everything they do or say by a single yardstick: does this make me look weak?" says Thompson. "And if it does, he isn't going to do it."

The prefrontal cortex is a knobby region of the brain directly behind the forehead that scientists believe helps humans organize complex thoughts, control their impulses and understand the consequences of their own behavior. In the last five years, Dr. Jay Giedd, an expert in brain development at the National Institutes of Health, has used brain scans to show that in girls, it reaches its maximum thickness by the age of 11 and, for the next decade or more, continues to mature. In boys, this process is delayed by 18 months.

Teenage girls can process information faster, too. In a study about to be published in the journal Intelligence, researchers at Vanderbilt University administered timed tests - picking similar objects and matching groups of numbers - to 8,000 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 18. In kindergarten, boys and girls processed information at about the same speeds. In early adolescence, girls finished faster and got more right. By 18, boys and girls were processing with the same speed and accuracy.

Some boys are every bit as organized and assertive as the highest-achieving girls. All kids can be scarred by violence, alcohol or drugs in the family. But if your brain hasn't reached maturity yet, says Yurgelun-Todd, "it's not going to be able to do its job optimally."

Shakespeare's Sister has something to say about this:

"Might we consider what it is about our culture that reinforces an association between accepting help and weakness among boys and men?" See, even though we're primates, we're not chimps. And one of the things that separates us from chimps is the capacity for cultural adjustment. If males are biologically determined to "measure everything they do or say by a single yardstick" which determines the appearance of weakness, the best way to address the associated educational issue isn't necessarily to bend an existing structure to accommodate an urge that isn't a strength in other areas of life, either, but addressing the failings of our culture at large to disassociate need from weakness.

Undoubtedly, there are those who would accuse me of further attempts to "feminize" the culture, but a boy who learns that seeking help is not a sign of weakness is more likely to become a man who seeks medical treatment at the first sign of trouble - one of many reasons why redefining "weakness" could benefit men.

Now, I certainly believe some of this is biological. It's been proven that girls mature faster than boys and that girls learn more quickly. I don't think it's the biggest cause of the problem - biology can only take us so far, and I agree with SS - we're not chimpanzees, and we can learn other ways. I wonder about her assessment that the "competitive" urge "isn't a strength in other areas of life" - that seems to be what she's saying. I could be wrong, but that's what it seems like. One of the biggest problems in today's school (and, by extension, a lot of society) is that we aren't more competitive. I'm not saying we should be at each other tooth and nail, but when I taught, the kids simply didn't care about doing their best, even to best their fellow students. When I was in school, we were fiercely competitive - even the girls, but mostly the boys - and it wasn't unhealthy, but more friendly - we wanted to do better in all facets of schooling than our peers. Maybe we were weird, but it seems today that the kids don't care about winning. We have turned the world into a place where it's bad to win (I'm skirting the edge of The Incredibles, I know) because we don't want anyone to feel bad. These kids aren't prepared for a world that doesn't give a shit whether they win or not. I don't know if it's a "guy" thing or not, but it annoys me when people say that competition is a bad thing. Taken to the extreme it's a bad thing, but that's true with everything.

The other thing is that it seems that it's fine for girls to do stuff traditionally reserved for boys (sports being the biggest example) but not okay for boys to do things traditionally reserved for girls. This is a problem with the culture, I agree. Now that I'm a grown-up (okay, now that I'm older) I would love to learn how to knit. I don't have the time, but it would be a cool thing to know. When I was a boy, however, I had no interest in it whatsoever. I don't know if I thought I would get picked on for wanting to knit, it's just that it wasn't the thing to do. I made a pillow once in Home Ec., but I just never had any inclination to pursue it. If we're going to push girls to be more like boys, we can also push the other way. Our society still, by and large, fears gays, so that won't happen for a while. "My boy ain't gonna learn how to sew! That's how the queers get ya!"

Of course, there's the question of what to do in the classroom? It vexes us all.

The problem won't be solved overnight. In the last two decades, the education system has become obsessed with a quantifiable and narrowly defined kind of academic success, these experts say, and that myopic view is harming boys. Boys are biologically, developmentally and psychologically different from girls - and teachers need to learn how to bring out the best in every one. "Very well-meaning people," says Dr. Bruce Perry, a Houston neurologist who advocates for troubled kids, "have created a biologically disrespectful model of education."

In elementary-school classrooms - where teachers increasingly put an emphasis on language and a premium on sitting quietly and speaking in turn - the mismatch between boys and school can become painfully obvious. "Girl behavior becomes the gold standard," says "Raising Cain" coauthor Thompson. "Boys are treated like defective girls."

So King asked her teachers to buy copies of Gurian's book "The Minds of Boys," on boy-friendly classrooms, and in the fall of 2004 she launched a bold experiment. Whenever possible, teachers replaced lecture time with fast-moving lessons that all kids could enjoy. Three weeks ago, instead of discussing the book "The View From Saturday," teacher Pam Unrau divided her third graders into small groups, and one student in each group pretended to be a character from the book. Classes are noisier, Unrau says, but the boys are closing the gap. Last spring, Douglass girls scored an average of 106 on state writing tests, while boys got a respectable 101.

Across the nation, educators are reviving an old idea: separate the girls from the boys - and at Roncalli Middle School, in Pueblo, Colo., administrators say, it's helping kids of both genders. This past fall, with the blessing of parents, school guidance counselor Mike Horton assigned a random group of 50 sixth graders to single-sex classes in core subjects. These days, when sixth-grade science teacher Pat Farrell assigns an earth-science lab on measuring crystals, the girls collect their materials - a Bunsen burner, a beaker of phenyl salicylate and a spoon. Then they read the directions and follow the sequence from beginning to end. The first things boys do is ask, "Can we eat this?" They're less organized, Farrell notes, but sometimes, "they're willing to go beyond what the lab asks them to do." With this in mind, he hands out written instructions to both classes but now goes over them step by step for the boys. Although it's too soon to declare victory, there are some positive signs: the shyest boys are participating more. This fall, the all-girl class did best in math, English and science, followed by the all-boy class and then coed classes.

I found this quote funny: "In elementary-school classrooms - where teachers increasingly put an emphasis on language and a premium on sitting quietly and speaking in turn ..." Increasingly? That sounds pretty old school to me. I know when I was in elementary school, we didn't have a lot of that, but back in the day, when boys were the only ones being educated, they had to do that. I'll get back to the structure of the classroom in a bit.

There's something else I noticed in one of the story's first paragraphs, and something they address later on:

His mother, Susie Malcom, a math teacher who is divorced, says it's been wrenching to watch Danny stumble. [Emphasis mine.]

One of the most reliable predictors of whether a boy will succeed or fail in high school rests on a single question: does he have a man in his life to look up to? Too often, the answer is no. High rates of divorce and single motherhood have created a generation of fatherless boys. In every kind of neighborhood, rich or poor, an increasing number of boys - now a startling 40 percent - are being raised without their biological dads.

In the past, boys had many opportunities to learn from older men. They might have been paired with a tutor, apprenticed to a master or put to work in the family store. High schools offered boys a rich array of roles in which to exercise leadership skills - class officer, yearbook editor or a place on the debate team. These days, with the exception of sports, more girls than boys are involved in those activities.

David Banks, principal of the Eagle Academy for Young Men, one of four all-boy public high schools in the New York City system, wants each of his 180 students not only to graduate from high school but to enroll in college. And he's leaving nothing to chance. Almost every Eagle Academy boy has a male mentor - a lawyer, a police officer or an entrepreneur from the school's South Bronx neighborhood. The impact of the mentoring program, says Banks, has been "beyond profound." Tenth grader Rafael Mendez is unequivocal: his mentor "is the best thing that ever happened to me."

I'm very glad they brought this up. To me, this is one of the most precise reasons why boys are doing poorly in school. Lack of male role models is hurting children more than we want to admit. When I taught, the kids (and boys, especially) who had two parents were much more well adjusted than those who didn't. I'm not talking specifics here - the two best students I have had were from turbulent homes - but in general, it holds true. Boys need and want male role models, and they don't get it anywhere. They are raised by women. They are usually taught by women, especially in the lower grades. They are surrounded by women. You might think this would make them more sensitive to the needs of women, but it doesn't. The women raising them have often been abandoned by men, so these boys hear nothing but bad things about men. They want a male role model, so you know where they turn: sports and popular culture. Kobe Bryant - he's a fine role model. He cheats on his wife and maybe rapes someone, but because he can score 81 in a game we all love him. 50 Cent. I don't know much about the fabulous Curtis Jackson, but what I do know isn't good. Charles Barkley was right when he said he's not a role model, but the sad fact is that these boys have nowhere else to turn. I love the program mentioned above about the male mentor, because it gives these kids a positive role model and someone who can intervene in their lives personally. Single mothers are doing the best they can, but they can't do it all. This is a much larger issue in society that simply does not get addressed enough.

As usual with "our children," some people want to make this political:

Some scholars, notably Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, charge that misguided feminism is what's been hurting boys. In the 1990s, she says, girls were making strong, steady progress toward parity in schools, but feminist educators portrayed them as disadvantaged and lavished them with support and attention. Boys, meanwhile, whose rates of achievement had begun to falter, were ignored and their problems allowed to fester.

In the last 10 years, thanks in part to activist parents concerned about their children's success, school performance has been measured in two simple ways: how many students are enrolled in accelerated courses and whether test scores stay high. Standardized assessments have become commonplace for kids as young as 6. Curricula have become more rigid. Instead of allowing teachers to instruct kids in the manner and pace that suit each class, some states now tell teachers what, when and how to teach. At the same time, student-teacher ratios have risen, physical education and sports programs have been cut and recess is a distant memory. These new pressures are undermining the strengths and underscoring the limitations of what psychologists call the "boy brain" - the kinetic, disorganized, maddening and sometimes brilliant behaviors that scientists now believe are not learned but hard-wired.

Shakespeare's Sister weighs in with this:

All of us were expected to sit quietly in class, raise our hands, follow the rules, etc. - exactly like school was (minus, perhaps, knuckles getting rapped with rulers) back when girls were largely denied access to public schooling. Now, suddenly when boys are falling behind, we're being told that the very structure which was developed when public education was predominantly boys-only is hurting boys, coupled with the claim that feminists are somehow to blame for it.

And that appears to be the biggest problem with most of the stories being written about gender and education lately - the notion that the nebulous concept of "feminization" is responsible for some boys struggling is being treated as conventional wisdom, while any other explanations are relegated to side notes, if they're even addressed at all. The suggestion that girls' successes be used as a model is routinely absent from articles such as this one, perhaps because nothing more radical than a cultural imperative to encourage women's education, and an expectation that girls step up to the plate, can be pointed to as evidence of girls' educational surge.

And, mind you, though it's much more convenient for these articles (and many of the studies upon which they're based) to turn this into a boys vs. girls issue, like all gender issues, it's hardly that straightforward. Not all boys are struggling, and not all girls are succeeding. But an acknowledgement that children of both sexes respond well to one type of educational structure or another wouldn't allow for a parade of experts to be introduced to reassure us in fancy words that "Boys will be boys."

NCLB punishes schools whose pupils' scores don't improve. When funding is predicated on test scores, is it any wonder that schools are teaching how to pass tests, rather than teaching learning as a lifelong process? If this structure is leaving boys behind, it isn't because of a feminist agenda, that's for bloody sure. Instead, those concerned about boys' education would do well to turn their eyes and their pointed fingers of blame in the direction of Washington, D.C. - and the manliest of the manly brush-clearin' cowboys from whose private-schooled brain this idea sprung.

She says it much better than I could. "Feminists" are causing this? If you want to say that "feminists" are pushing for girls to improve, well, I suppose that's true, but it's like saying that gay people should all join PETA - what the hell do they care about animal rights? They have problems of their own. "Feminists" were, and are, trying to improve the lot of females. That's kind of the point. If anyone can prove that these evil feminists are actively blocking improvement for boys, that's a different story. I doubt if anyone can, though. As for how kids learn, well, I'll get to that, too.

Finally, some points about what kids are studying. It's "girl" books:

Last semester, when his English teacher assigned two girls' favorites - "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "The Secret Life of Bees" Nikolas got a D.

I found the Newsweek story at Education Wonks, which had some thoughts about that last point:

I remember when I was a KidWonk, boy students enjoyed reading adventure stories such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, and Ernest Hemingway's short stories. In addition, tales of real-life American heroes such as those recorded in Richard Tregaskis' Guadalcanal Diary were very popular with all of us. Many literature text and other classroom reading materials featured these kinds of works.

At our junior high here in California's "Imperial" Valley, students no longer read any kind of novel. Short stories and passages from novels are used instead, and these are selected with an eye toward political sensitivity rather than as exemplars of classic writing or high student interest.

Students are no longer reading works (such as those listed above) that have much "boy appeal." What's in vogue are those stories that demonstrate how problems and conflict should be addressed through consensus-building, accommodation, and acceptance of the inevitable.

The classic hero (which appeals to so many boys) has, for the most part, disappeared from public school reading lists. The heroic struggle has gone out of fashion.

One of the results of this unfortunate change is that many boys have lost all interest in what is being read in class. Most teachers would agree that this makes the teaching of our male students even more challenging. And that's not good for anyone, students or teachers.

I have to agree with this, for the most part. We don't read novels anymore, we read excerpts. I also agree that the "heroic ideal" has somewhat disappeared from schools. I don't know why. Kids love that sort of thing - girls and boys both. In middle school, which is where boys really start to fall behind, we shouldn't be reading such nuanced stuff as Memoirs of a Geisha. I don't even want my daughters reading it. I have no problem with "consensus-building, accommodation, and acceptance of the inevitable" - in a more mature setting. Sometimes (most of the time, actually) kids like to read about ass-kicking. And there's nothing wrong with that. I was reading somewhere that Disney is going to have problems making one of the Narnia books into a movie (that was a Disney movie, right? It doesn't really matter). Can you guess which one? If you said The Horse And His Boy, go to the head of the class. Why? Because of the portrayal of the Calormenes, who are obviously Arab and are pretty much awful. Political correctness being what it is, everyone's a bit squeamish about it. Let me tell you: I read that sucker when I was young, and that didn't even enter my head. It was an adventure story, and there were good guys and bad guys. Maybe I wasn't as sophisticated as today's youth, but I really doubt most kids will turn into Arab-hating crazies just because they read the book. I doubt most of them will make the connection, unless an adult points it out to them. That's one of the most annoying things about kids today - the fact that they're not allowed to experience something innocently. Someone is always there to "explain" it to them. I'm not saying middle school kids should read The Horse And His Boy all the time. But they should read more stuff with good guys and bad guys - no matter who the bad guys are - and lots of shooting. Video game sales have soared recently and according the FBI, kids are less violent these days. So games aren't warping their minds. Would wild literature? I know that when I taught Watchmen in my class, a lot of the kids started off hating it (even though it's a freakin' comic book) but by the end, a lot of boys enjoyed it. Why? Murder, attempted rape, shootings, fights - you name it, Watchmen has it. A lot of girls didn't actually like it - and if she's reading, one of my students can tell you that. But tough shit. It was good for them - like Brussels sprouts!

Lastly, Mr. Shakespeare has his say:

One of the more curious hypotheses that I've read is that the current expectation in the classroom, which requires children to follow a rigid code of behavior including sitting down and shutting up, is not conducive to the education of boys, given their rambunctious and unfocused natures.

However, this assertion is counterintuitive. Back in the day when unruly young lads like William Shakespeare and Lord Byron attended school (and their sisters sat at home sewing), classrooms were run like the Gulag. Not only was a student expected to be quiet, submissive, and still, but the penalties for breaking the expected code of conduct were far more severe. Students who didn't abide by these expectations could expect to be whipped until they did what they were told. This, in combination with the far more rigorous academic demands, provided an atmosphere that was authoritarian beyond the wildest nightmare of today's boys, and far less accommodating of rambunctiousness and lack of focus.

An educational structure designed by men for boys, which managed to produce generations of well-educated and literate men, demanded more discipline, not less. Although I'm not suggesting that we hearken back to the days of caning and suppression of individualism, I'm not convinced that a freeform environment where boys get to roll around on the floor all day is the best solution to their problems.

If boys are indeed inherently more undisciplined than their female counterparts, then perhaps the answer is to provide them with more structure and create a less forgiving environment that demands the very best from them. In the end, it's more important that boys learn how to use their wild imaginations creatively and productively, something which requires focus, which itself is dependent on discipline. Channeling their imaginations into productive endeavors is not the same as stifling creativity.

I couldn't agree more. Kids need structure more than anything. I mentioned above that I would get back to the disappearance of certain aspects of the school day. Well, this is where it becomes relevant. We have become so obsessed by test scores that we have pared school down to the bone. Boys can be disciplined and pay attention, but nobody - not even girls - can pay attention for as long as schools demand these days. We don't want to pay for extra teachers and long days, so we cut funding. So the schools have to cut programs. What's the first to go? Certainly not the hard core classes - we need English, history, science, and math. So let's get rid of recess. Let's get rid of P.E. Let's get rid of music programs. We won't get rid of the big sports programs, because football brings in too much money, but who the hell needs the smaller programs? And because football brings in so much money, we better put even more pressure on these kids. When I was in school, we often sat quietly for an hour and did our work - because we knew we would have recess soon. Or we knew at the end of the day we would have choir (which was a class and we had to learn stuff, but it was still "fun"). We knew we would have wood shop where we could chop away at stuff and get out all our aggressions, or even Home Economics where we would make cookies, for crying out loud. All of that is the first to go when the penny-pinching begins. Kids, especially boys, need an outlet. Take that away from them and they begin acting up in the only classes they have. If they had that outlet, we could be more rigid and disciplinary in the "real" classes and all would be a little better. But structure remains important. Kids are coming from chaos, as parents split up and get remarried and bring stepkids into the house and move around the country, and schools need to provide structure for them. At my last school, we experienced the weirdest phenomenon every May. The kids had spent the previous nine months making our lives miserable with their insubordination. We tried and tried to get them to stay in class and show up to school and discipline when they stepped out of line. You would have sworn they hated it. At the end of the school year, we couldn't get rid of them. They wanted to stay. We asked them what they were doing over the summer, and they answered, "Nothing - just hanging out." We provided them with more stability than their lives otherwise had, which is pretty sad. But it was something.

This is a ridiculously complex topic that deserves serious discussion among school boards and parents. Knee-jerk reactions and politicizing the issue don't do anyone any good. It's a shame, because this really is "about the chthanren," much more than stupid Internet searches are. But, as usual, because it's a complex topic that might demand some sacrifices, people don't want to consider it. "Dancing With Celebrities" is on, after all!

Thoughts? Parents, teachers, human beings? We all have a stake in it.

Sorry for the length of the post. Frivolity returns soon!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post was way too long. I got bored and stopped reading about halfway through, but I read enough to see that you want to learn to knit. Dude, you're gay!

27/1/06 1:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm of two minds on competition, on the one hand it is good to have some goal for kids to aspire to, on the other hand, it can give the teachers a handy tool for reinforcing the established order.
When I was in (Catholic) grammar school, They gave out awards at graduation, but the two kids who got "General Excellence" were limited to one other award. When my younger sister graduated years later (from a different school), the two girls who got the general excellence awards also walked off with 70% of the other awards. Did those teachers do anything for 8 years other than play favorites? I know it was a small school, but would it have killed them to spread it around?

27/1/06 7:53 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

This was an interesting post. Not sure if I agree or not with some points, but it was good and brought up a lot to think about.

27/1/06 9:33 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

I'd watch out, Mr. Powerfinger, unless you want me to tell the world exactly what you used to do. Talk about gay!

Steve - that is a problem, and teachers who say they don't play favorites are lying. I always tried to be fair, but I had my favorites. Awards are a tough one. I'm talking more about in the classroom - one way I tried to inspire kids was by posting their grades publicly. Some sank deeper because they got depressed and thought there was no way out. Some rose to the challenge and greatly improved. It's tough to really figure it out fully.

27/1/06 10:19 AM  
Blogger ymelendez said...

I hated Watchmen. Maybe I should read it one more time maybe this time I will understand it. Maybe not.

27/1/06 11:01 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

See, Yazil? And you're a girl! I wonder if we had read something "girly" whether you would have liked it better. It's just a thought.

27/1/06 12:34 PM  
Blogger Jules said...

fascinating post! I agree with you on just about everything, especially about structure.

i have already posted a link to this. good job!

28/1/06 12:48 PM  
Blogger ms. v. said...

Really thoughtful exploration of these ideas... thanks.

I think Newsday is a little behind the times - I've been hearing for years that boys are the new girls, at least in terms of being the focus of concern... and a lot of the books about raising boys were published in the 90's.

28/1/06 9:50 PM  

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