The boys at the back

“Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college, writes Christina Hoff Sommers in The Boys at the Back in the New York Times.

Elementary teachers give boys lower grades than their test scores would have predicted, according to a study in The Journal of Human Resources. Boys can’t keep up with girls in “attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently,” the researchers say.

. . . one critic told me recently, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy and unfocused workers. But unproductive workers are adults — not 5-year-olds. If boys are restless and unfocused, why not look for ways to help them do better? As a nation, can we afford not to?

In a revised version of her book, The War on Boys, Sommers hits “boy-averse trends like the decline of recess, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, the tendency to criminalize minor juvenile misconduct and the turn away from single-sex schooling.”

As our schools have become more feelings-centered, risk-averse, collaboration-oriented and sedentary, they have moved further and further from boys’ characteristic sensibilities.

Male underachievement in school is a global phenomenon. The British, the Canadians and the Australians are experimenting with ways to  help boys do well in school, Sommers writes. That ranges from “boy-friendly reading assignments” to single-sex classes.

At Aviation High School in New York City, students spend half their day learning traditional subjects and the other half on aviation mechanics.

. . .  I observed a classroom of 14- and 15-year-olds focused on constructing miniaturized, electrically wired airplane wings from mostly raw materials. In another class, students worked in teams — with a student foreman and crew chief — to take apart and then rebuild a small jet engine in just 20 days.

The school’s 2,200 pupils — mostly students of color, from low-income households — have a 95 percent attendance rate and a 90 percent graduation rate, with 80 percent going on to college.

. . . “The school is all about structure,” an assistant principal, Ralph Santiago, told me. The faculty emphasizes organization, precision, workmanship and attention to detail.

Aviation High is co-ed, but only 16 percent of students are girls. The school has received the district’s “A” rating six years in a row.

“Vocational high schools with serious academic requirements are an important part of the solution to male disengagement from school,” Sommers concludes.

Ilana Garon couldn’t control a nearly all-male special ed class, until her female co-teacher was replaced by a male teacher, she writes on Ed Week‘s View from the Bronx.

About Joanne


  1. The feminization of America has not been kind to boys.

    • My exact thought too.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Well, yes and no. Ask yourself how many women are at the top echelons of power in the USA. How many women run investment banks or powerful financials? zero. How many hedge fund managers? Zero. How many women in top management positions at Goldman Sachs? One – in human resources. Women hold “powerful” positions only in the public sphere and rarely in the private.

      Hyper-competitive people will also find a way to compete even when the culture discourages it overtly. If they’re skillful they just work around the obstacles.

      We are wasting human capital when we structure a system to penalize a significant portion of the population for possessing the qualities we need culturally. But this is nothing new; we’ve just shifted the out group.

      • GEORGE LARSON says:

        From Bonnie Erbe:
        A report released earlier this month by the financial-services firm Rothstein Kass reveals that female hedge-fund managers leveraged an average 8.9 percent return in the third quarter of 2012. A separate report from Hedge Fund Research showed that, globally, hedge funds averaged a mere 2.69 percent return during the same period.

        Edith W. Cooper, Goldman Sachs Executive Vice President and Global Head of Human Capital Management. In addition there were 2 women on the board of directors and 3 on the management committee.

        Hetty Green (née Robinson), nicknamed “The Witch of Wall Street” (November 21, 1834 – July 3, 1916), was an American businesswoman, remarkable for her frugality during the Gilded Age, as well as for being the first American woman to make a substantial impact on Wall Street.

        Muriel “Mickie” Siebert, (born February 11, 1932, Cleveland, Ohio), and known as “The First Woman of Finance”, was the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and the first woman to head one of its member firms. Her struggle to obtain that seat – and join the 1365 male members of the exchange – culminated successfully on December 28, 1967.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          George, how many hedge funds are HEADED by women? Hedge funds do employ women – in junior manager positions. My point wasn’t that NO women ever excel in a male dominated world. It was that it was the exception, the rare exception and it is.

          FYI, Edith Cooper is Goldman’s HR manager.

          • GEORGE LARSON says:

            What is wrong with being in HR? It is clearly a “top management position” and contradicts your claim.

            Here are a few more. Why did you claim the number is zero?

            Lauren Malafronte
            Managing Director, Global Prime Finance

            Anne Popkin
            Symphony Asset Management

            Mindy M. Posoff
            Founder, Traversent Capital Partners, LLC
            Managing Director, Golden Seeds

            Daphne Richards
            Managing Director and Director of Hedge Fund Investments and Co-Head of Alternative Investments
            Bessemer Trust

            Diane Schrader
            Lionfish Capital LLC

            Sandra A. Urie
            Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
            Cambridge Associates LLC
            100WHF Executive Committee member – Vice Chair

            Joan Werner
            Senior Director
            New York Life Investments

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            George, In my initial post I specified the “top echelon” of power. While there are many women in high quality position, there are very few in the sphere occupied by the likes of Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, Tim Cook, or Ray Dalio.

            There’s absolutely nothing wrong with HR if you want a solid professional career. There’s a great deal wrong with it if you are very competitive and ambitious. It’s a pink collar ghetto.

  2. Most women choose fields that allow family-friendly hours. You don’t see many woman surgeons, upper-level financial-world types, STEM types etc. because those fields are not family-friendly. I was told, by a top-3 MBA grad, that the women in his cohort who entered investment banking started leaving within 3 months. They simply weren’t willing to put in the 90+ weeks.

  3. I should also say that, since there are 12 years between my oldest and my youngest, I was in a good position to observe the changes in the ed world that made it much less friendly to boys (and to girls like my youngest). Some I could attribute to the retirement of older teachers, who seemed to understand and appreciate boys far more than their younger colleagues, but some was clearly coming from changes in the ed world philosophy. I could see the changes, even though my kids were not affected by things like the spiral math curricula, Readers’/Writers’ Workshop, heterogeneous grouping (let alone full inclusion), groupwork and discovery learning – although my younger ones saw the beginning of those trends. I couldn’t imagine any of their young teachers telling (usually) boys who had finished their work and were wandering around and distracting others,”take three laps around the playground” (unsupervised, except for teacher glancing out of windows!), My kids weren’t ADHD, either – just the kind of 2nd-4th graders who ran a 10k in the morning and played travel soccer in the afternoon. The books used in ELA changed; all chick lit, all the time: the substance and nauseating sweetness of cotton candy.

    • Can you explain what ‘spiral math’ actually IS? I’m confused, because I’ve seen some people refer to Saxon as a ‘spiral’ curriculum… but really, Saxon seems really linear to me–to the point where, when a new concept is introduced, the kids are totally ready for it,.. it just also includes regular review to keep skills fresh….. So.. what makes a curriculum ‘spiral?’

      • I’ll give it a shot. AFAIK, spiral curricula (ex -Everyday Math, TERC Investigations) are non-sequential and non-hierarchical, but based on the idea that mastery of any topic or skill is not necessary before moving on to another topic. The same things are repeated in an ongoing spiral, so the kids will just “get it” when they are “ready” (teachers are told to “trust the spiral”) I think there’s quite a bit of “discovery” and use of manipulatives. Math facts and standard algorithms are considered unnecessary and undesirable. One mother (now homeschooling) said that her 3 kids were all doing the exact same thing in math, even though they were in different grades (IIRC a 5-yr span). SteveH, who afterschooled his son and comments frequently on this topic, calls it “repeated partial learning”, and describes bright 5th-graders who don’t know basic facts or algorithms, let alone fractions and decimals.
        Singapore Math is the opposite of the spirals and AFAIK, Saxon is also.

        One teacher, who comments frequently and seems to be highly knowledgeable, says that the spiral curricula were specifically developed for the heterogeneous, full-inclusion classroom, which makes sense. Since there’s no need to master anything, the curriculum enables the pretense that “all” are learning. If what parents like SteveH are saying is true (and I believe them), use of such curricula mean that only those kids who have parents who can teach real math at home (or hire someone) are able to make the big jump (passing a screening test) to the top (HS calc BC, STEM-ready) track are those who are taught outside of school. As long as “enough” kids (no doubt determined on a single-school level) are getting there, schools don’t want to know how it’s happening.

        • Ok– by that description Saxon’s definitely NOT spiral, since it builds and links obsessively. (I.e. adding–> adding multiples of same number—>multiplying/arrays —> Area
          But also adding—> Subtracting–>multiplying—>dividing…

          Maybe some people mistake it for ‘spiral’ because it includes multiple skills (time, temperature, math facts, word problems, graphing) on the same sheet? Each stream is progressive, they meet at certain points, but the kids do all simultaneously. So, instead of a telling time unit, they work on clock problems all year, and arithmetic all year, and measurement all year…..

  4. GEORGE LARSON says:

    Stacy in NJ

    Abby Joseph Cohen (born 1952 in Queens, New York) is an American economist and financial analyst on Wall Street. She is a partner and—as of March 2008[update]—Senior U.S. investment strategist at Goldman Sachs responsible for leadership of the firm’s Global Markets Institute. Prior to that date, she was Chief Investment Strategist

  5. “Well, yes and no. Ask yourself how many women are at the top echelons of power in the USA.”

    Ask yourself how many women are at the top echelons of education. In our Holt literature book, all 30+ editors are women, save two. It doesn’t matter. You completely misunderstood my comment.