How to make school work for boys

“American boys across the ability spectrum are struggling in the nation’s schools,” argues Christina Hoff Sommers in The Atlantic. There are ways we can make school better for boys, writes Sommers, author of The War Against Boys.

First, we have to “acknowledge the fact that boys and girls are different.”

In many education and government circles, it remains taboo to broach the topic of sex differences. Many gender scholars insist that the sexes are cognitively interchangeable and argue that any talk of difference only encourages sexism and stereotyping.

Yet, “boys are languishing academically, while girls are soaring,” writes Sommers, who has plenty of statistics to back up her case.

Career tech education works well for many boys (and some girls), Sommers writes. In Massachusetts’ network of 26 academically rigorous vocational-technical high schools, students “take traditional academic courses but spend half their time apprenticing in a field of their choice. These include computer repair, telecommunications networking, carpentry, early childhood education, plumbing, heating, refrigeration, and cosmetology.”

These schools boast high graduation and college matriculation rates; close to 96 percent of students pass the states’ graduation test.

Blackstone Valley Tech in Upton, Massachusetts, should be studied by anyone looking for solutions to the boy problem.  It is working wonders with girls (who comprise 44 percent of the student body), but its success with boys is astonishing. According to a white paper on vocational education by the Commonwealth’s Pioneer Institute, “One in four Valley Technical students enter their freshman year with a fourth-grade reading level.” The school immerses these students in an intense, individualized remediation program until they read proficiently at grade level. These potentially disaffected students put up with remediation as well as a full load of college preparatory courses (including honors and Advanced Placement classes), because otherwise they could not spend half the semester apprenticing in diesel mechanics, computer repair, or automotive engineering.

However, career tech education faces a challenge from the National Council on Women and Girls Education, which considers vocational schools as hotbeds of “sex segregation,” writes Sommers. The consortium and its members have spent decades lobbying to force career tech programs to get female students into “non-traditional” fields.

Over the years, untold millions of state and federal dollars have been devoted to recruiting and retaining young women into fields like pipefitting, automotive repair, construction, drywall installing, manufacturing, and refrigeration mechanics.  But according to Statchat, a University of Virginia workforce blog, these efforts at vocational equity “haven’t had much of an impact.”

In March 2013 NCWGE released a report urging the need to fight even harder against “barriers girls and women face in entering nontraditional fields.” Among its nine key recommendations to Congress: more federal funding and challenge grants to help states close the gender gaps in career and technical education (CTE); mandate every state to install a CTE gender equity coordinator; and impose harsher punishments on states that fail to meet “performance measures” –i.e. gender quotas.

“Instead of spending millions of dollars attempting to transform aspiring cosmetologists into welders, education officials should concentrate on helping young people, male and female, enter careers that interest them,” concludes Sommers. And the priority should be providing education options that motivate our neediest students, boys and young men.

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