The growing achievement gap between boys and girls has been the subject of numerous research studies, scholarly articles and books over the past several years. How to address this problem has become a topic of interest and debate among teachers, parents and students.
Time magazine recently featured an article on this topic titled "School Has Become Too Hostile to Boys." The story gives illustrations of rules and policies that bump up against boy behavior that's altogether normal and innocuous. The most outrageous example: the little boy, age 7, who was suspended from his Maryland school for nibbling a strawberry Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun.
Another article, "How to Make School Better for Boys," appeared in The Atlantic last month. In this piece, Christina Hoff Sommers highlights the unhappy plight of boys in our nation's schools. Examples and data that underscore the problem are well-documented: Girls earn college degrees at a rate approaching 2 to 1 compared to boys; boys are three times as likely as girls to be expelled from school; boys are diagnosed with learning differences four times as often as girls.
Ms. Hoff Sommers argues that the decline in boy achievement is having distressing economic consequences for males. She cites a 2011 Brookings Institution study that reports a decline in earnings of almost 50 percent since the mid-1970s for men with only a high school diploma. As the U.S. workforce becomes increasingly knowledge-based, underachieving boys who forfeit opportunities for college study are part of a growing group of young working-class men being left behind.
The same is true in other countries. The difference is that in Britain and Australia and Canada, elected leaders are looking for ways to help boys get back on track and have created a variety of task forces and agencies to accomplish this goal. One model that's receiving positive attention is single-gender education for boys.
In Britain, schools are ranked based on the results of nationally administered achievement tests. Among the top 25 schools in 2013, single-sex schools occupied 86 percent of the top spots, with girls' schools surpassing boys' schools by a margin of about 3 to 2. And while only 9 percent of British independent schools are boys' schools, nine of the top 25 schools (36 percent) are boys-only. Even though British girls outperform British boys overall, boys at single-sex schools thrive in comparison to their male counterparts at co-ed schools.
I feel comfortable speaking about the benefits of single-gender education for boys after spending nearly two decades as a teacher, and now headmaster, at The Kiski School, an all-boys high school in Westmoreland County. During this time, I've witnessed an evolution in classroom practices.
In recent years, we've been focusing on more project-based learning activities, with great results. Literature on "best methods" for boys suggests that they learn best when they're engaged in activities involving hands-on activities, open inquiry, product design and teamwork. These themes are well-aligned with what has been popularly called "21st-century skills" -- the proficiencies that leaders in education and industry have identified as critical to success in the new global workplace.
Boys' schools are filled with examples of this type of learning and the successful outcomes it generates. At our school last year, one of our boys designed an independent study program on bridge-building. With the help of a teacher, he found a retired PennDOT engineer who volunteered his time as an adviser. Together, they considered design options and studied the benefits and drawbacks of each. Our Engineering Club was enlisted to help with the construction phase. Slowly but surely a bridge began to emerge, reaching across two banks of a small stream near our soccer field. By last spring, the completion of the project was marked with a ribbon-cutting ceremony followed by a group of students taking an inaugural walk across the new bridge.
That's real-life learning. The young man responsible for this project is a freshman at Cooper Union College this fall, with plans to pursue a career as a structural engineer.
At most boys' schools, athletics play a prominent role, and the lessons learned are of great merit. All of our students are required to play on athletic teams and do so as a substitute for taking physical education classes. The habits they acquire -- teamwork, sportsmanship and fair play -- add to the skill set they will need to prosper in college and beyond. Testimonials from our graduates support the notion that their athletic experience at an all-boys school supplied them with a valuable foundation on which to build careers and lives.
As we look for solutions to the "boy crisis" in American education, we need more qualitative and quantitative evidence about what works for boys and what doesn't. Most of all, we need a well-defined plan at the national level to address this problem.
The formation of a Council for Boys and Men has been proposed by a bipartisan group of educators and politicians and submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. For the past two years, as the gender achievement gap has continued to widen, this proposal has been awaiting review. It's time to take action on this pressing issue.
Chris Brueningsen is headmaster of The Kiski School, a boys' boarding school in Saltsburg (firstname.lastname@example.org). First Published October 9, 2013 8:00 PM