Thursday, March 27, 2008

Smart, Active Boys: Our Most Underserved Students

by Marty Nemko
When I was a boy, I just could not sit still in class. I was very bored and active by nature, so I would rock my chair back, whisper and write notes to kids, even wander around the classroom until the teacher yelled, "Martin, sit down!"

That was decades ago. Today, I suspect I would, like so many boys, put on a Ritalin leash. Indeed there are eight boys for every girl on Ritalin.

The blame is placed on the smart, active boy, rarely on the schools, which claim to celebrate diversity of learning styles and needs but stop celebrating when it comes to smart, active boys. Indeed, this decade's signature domestic policy, No Child Left Behind redirects nearly all efforts to educate the lowest achievers.

This, of course, is ironic in that smart kids have the greatest potential to contribute to society: to cure its diseases, close the racial achievement gap, develop cost-effective solar power, etc.

The unfair treatment of smart, active boys comes from four factors:

1. The widespread abandonment of ability-grouped classes. In most of today's elementary schools, gifted and slow are placed in the same class. That creates more equality--especially racial equality--but the result is that all children receive a worse education. Imagine for example, that you spoke good Mandarin but wanted to become expert. Wouldn't you prefer a class with advanced students rather than one that also had beginners? Yet today, we don't give smart kids (or their parents) that choice. We force them into mixed-ability classes, where dispositive metaevaluations reveal they learn less and are bored. And because, on average, boys are more active than girls, they more often can't sit still for six hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year, year after year. Rather than the harder task of accommodating to smart, active boys' needs, it's "take this (meth-like) pill." and/or be yelled at, and or given bad grades.

2. That elementary school teachers are overwhelmingly female. Today, the percentage is up to 93%, the highest ever recorded. Even if teachers believe they're accommodating to all students' needs, they can't help but tilt their teaching to what appeals to them. Thus, books about male heroism are replaced by those of female relationships and heroines, typically in which an inferior male is shown-up by a wise female. Competition--a prime motivator for boys--is replaced by so-called "cooperative learning," which usually reduces to the bright doing the slow's work, boring the bright kid and precluding him from learning new things.

3. The media's continuing to perpetrate the myth that females are oppressed and males are the oppressor. For example, they continue to spout these disproven assertions:

  • women earn 77 cents on the dollar compared with men. In fact, a rich research literature documents that sexism is not at the core of pay differentials, for example, THIS is from the New York Times, THIS is from the Wall Street Journal, THIS is from Compensation Cafe, THIS is from City Journal. Alas, the media chooses to ignore all that research in favor of the broadbrush, "Women earn 77 cents on the dollar."
  • women are underrepresented in high-level positions because of sexism. In fact, as documented in recent well-reviewed books such as Susan Pinker's The Sexual Paradox, women's not being in high-office comes much more from choosing to have a less work-centric lifestyle.
  • the schools shortchange girls relative to boys. (the long-debunked Reviving Ophelia canard.)
  • men abuse women--in fact, studies show that 30 to 52% of severe domestic violence is perpetrated by women.

Thus, the feeling among educators, policymakers, and the public, is that we need to do more for females than for males, ignoring such statistics that boys are achieving far worse in school than are girls, much more likely to abuse drugs, commit suicide, and drop out of high school, far less likely to graduate from college, much more likely, as young adults, to be sleeping late unemployed on their parents' sofas.

4. Society's bias that says: let's help those with the greatest deficit rather than those with the greatest potential to profit: "Those smart boys will do okay on their own. Let's commit our resources to the lowest achievers." I deeply believe that such a philosophy will reduce our society to the lowest common denominator, ironically resulting in a worse life for us all. Besides, it simply is unfair for the public schools to not provide at least a marginally appropriate education for all kids, and right now, smart boys get the very least appropriate education.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Great post. I think one way to help these active, restless learners would be to control classroom placement. Most schools have multiple classes per grade level. Why not place the students in classes according to percentiles? It would allow schools to select the teachers for those classes based on which ones were skilled at teaching to challenged vs. accelerated learners. Students that improved relative to the grade would be placed higher in the following year, so it would create achievement goals for kids as well.

I think it would be hard to convince the nation of this, though-- they would worry about hurt feelings, injured self esteem, and all the rest. I think all of that would depend on how much (or how little) you convey these distinctions to the kids.

AMY said...

Wow, great logic! I am a mother of two young boys. My oldest is in the second grade and is very bright and active. Any discipline issues he has had this year (and they have been minimal) have come from him getting bored. When his teacher is teaching a lesson, he gets ahead of her and keeps asking questions. We are blessed to be in a small town with a wonderful school district and he has a wonderful teacher. She simply is having to teach to the lowest level. I do want him to learn self control and respect the rest of the class but what does he lose in the mean time...his zeal to learn? The "gifted and talented" program does not seem to have clear challenging avenues within the current subject matter. It seems more of a creative outlet for these kids. What are your suggestions for a mom like me? I am not familiar with education politics but I want to do what I can for boys like mine in our community.

Marty Nemko said...


In a small town, in general, the wisest approach is to encourage your kid to use the Web and books to explore interesting stuff, no matter how unusual.

Also, encourage him to take on big projects: direct a student play, start a little business, concoct some cool science experiment, start a peer support group, whatever.