Boys Do Badly in School: Is Single-Sex Education the Solution?

A BBC documentary plunges Britain into debate

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From The Atlantic's own The End of Men by Hanna Rosin to ubiquitous blog posts and books about boys falling behind, the matter of males and education has been an intriguing counterpoint to debates about women in science or the gender pay-gap. The charge is that boys aren't doing as well as girls in school anymore, partly because schools reward the ability to sit still, discourage competition, and have an abundance of female teachers and a shortage of males. Unsurprisingly, this argument doesn't sit well in some quarters.

A test case in this debate is being floated in the U.K, where a BBC program called Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys shows a primary school teacher's efforts to "re-engage boys who don't like school and who, like many across Britain, lag behind their female peers." British pundits are debating the motives and results. Here's how it's playing out.

  • What Boys Need  "While I am thankful for the equal opportunities afforded to girls and the disappearance of the cane," writes The Telegraph's Rowan Pelling, reminiscing about his own days in school, "there is now widespread acknowledgment that most of these changes [in the interceding years] have been disastrous--particularly for boys." In his view, "boys need discipline and to be challenged, thrilled and inspired, or their concentration quickly lapses," and "these elements are routinely lacking from Britain's junior classrooms, as are the necessary male role models." His experience with his own son illustrates the point:

Take the time I was asked to rein him in, because he had been frightening other children by talking about demons and zombies. I couldn't help thinking that a male teacher would have shared my belief that this was entirely appropriate subject matter for a small boy with a lively imagination. Meanwhile, competition is verboten ... [and] I only improved his reading by taking him off the dull school learn-to-read texts and giving him Tintin and Roald Dahl.
  • What Both Genders Need  All children "will do better if they are taught better by teachers who understand their individual needs," counters Oli de Botton in The Guardian "That means skilled practitioners using the curriculum creatively to engage and excite every single child in front of them--regardless of their gender." Single-sex education advocates risk forgetting about "the girl who likes active learning or the boy who is shy," while a recent report "shows that single-sex schools make little difference to outcomes."
  • Boys Are 'Failing Themselves,' argues Elly at the Oxbridge Essays blog. It's more likely girls' earlier adoption of a "sense of responsibility and their work ethic"than anything else that is responsible for discrepancies between female and male achievement in school. "If it is the female attitude rather than the female intellect that is boosting exam results then," contrary to what single-sex education folks are arguing, "mixing with girls would improve boys' grades as their concentration and attitude towards exams have a positive impact on their male peers."
  • And Stereotyping Doesn't Help's Alex DiBranco notes that a Louisiana middle school recently "implemented single-sex classes under the rationale that girls are 'content to simply observe' in class while boys 'enjoy argument and lively classroom debate' and must be given more dynamic classes accordingly." But one study (also from England, it turns out) finds that "just like when girls score worse on tests when they hear their sex can't do math, boys do worse at academics when they're treated like goof-offs from the start." It turns out that "boys (and girls) are more likely to believe that girls are harder working and better behaved, which creates a 'self-fulfilling prophecy.'" Or, as Salon's Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory concludes, "teachers should treat all children like little people, not little men or little women." They both point out that this isn't very different from the studies showing that girls do worse on math tests after being reminded that they are girls.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.