SPECIAL REPORT: Are Boys Falling Behind?

By: Lauren Evans Email
By: Lauren Evans Email
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 "I've never had a graduating class where there were more boys that were top graduates than girls," said Williamston High School Principal Jeffrey Thoenes.

Missing from this Advanced Placement English class at Williamston High School are the boys. Just three in Jean Eddington-Shipman's class this semester.

"When I first started teaching AP 27 years ago, it was a much better balance," Eddington-Shipman said.

Not anymore.

Girls are very consistently at the head of the class.

Last year, 80 percent of the top graduates from East Lansing, Everett, Mason, Owosso, and Sexton high schools were girls, according to the Great Grads published in the Lansing State Journal. At Williamston High School, it was two-thirds.

"I've never had a graduating class where there were more boys that were top graduates than girls," said Williamston Principal Jeffrey Thoenes, who's spent nine years as a high school principal both in mid-Michigan and in Mt. Pleasant.

This achievement gap between genders isn't just showing up in high school classrooms. It may be starting much earlier than that.

"They're not so different at this level," said Christopher Bates, of the way young boys and girls learn. Bates teaches third grade at Lansing's Riddle Elementary School and has been with the Lansing School District for 12 years.

We visited his class when the students were learning algebra. Bates will tell you it's the maturity level where girls, not surprisingly, excel.

"They're more studious," Bates explained. "They take their learning more seriously. The boys probably would rather be outside playing football."

Christina Powell helps Riddle students in kindergarten through third grade who are struggling with their reading. She says about three-quarters of those students are boys.

"They know that they're falling behind, and everything starts to get hard, so their first reaction is to act out," said Powell, a Title I literacy teacher who's spent 13 years in Lansing schools.

At many schools, boys, in general, tend to wind up in the principal's office or suspended much more often than girls, thus spending more time outside the classroom.

"Schools tend to penalize boy behaviors much more than girl behaviors," said MSU Assistant Professor Muhammad Khalifa, who studies K-12 education.

He's found that any achievement gap between boys and girls boils down to discipline issues.

"Schools are situated in a way to reward people who comply with rules a little better than those who don't," Khalifa said.

As those boys grow up, Dr. Thoenes sees another factor come into play.

"There are a lot of boys who get the message that they're valued for their athleticism, and that becomes more of a priority," Thoenes said.

And then there's college.

Michigan State University last year admitted 1,626 more women than men. Nationwide, more women than men earn degrees.

"That trend began pretty soon after Title IX, which is good to have girls and women earning higher degrees, clearly, and graduating," Thoenes said. "But is there a certain point where boys now need some kind of support or encouragement or a different message that they can be athletic and be successful in the classroom?"

According to Khalifa, we're not there yet.

"There's no evidence that I'm aware of at all that suggests boys are doing worse," said Khalifa. "It's that girls are doing better. And when you compare the two groups , it's like 'Oh my God, what happened to the boys?' Well, not much."

Boys are still excelling on standardized testing. For example, Okemos High School has seven male students who are National Merit Semi-Finalists this year, compared to two female students. The National Merit Scholarship Program is based on PSAT scores. So far this school year, Okemos has had one student earn a perfect 36 on the ACT: a male student.

Thoenes says we also must consider the changing quality of education in the nation's schools.

"What we were having kids learn even when I was in high school is much more rigorous now," said Thoenes. "Students now are being required to learn what used to be college course work. So I think both genders are gaining a tremendous amount with the current level of education in the U.S."

Khalifa points out we live in a male-dominated society, and that women are still under-represented in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

"Boys are outperforming girls and being out-paid, are landing more jobs, are being promoted, are heading industries in the STEM fields, far more than girls," Khalifa said.

"Just because two groups are being compared to each other and one group starts to outperform another in some area, that doesn't necessarily mean that this group is all of a sudden in danger or something like that," he explained. "In fact, if you look at the societal context, they're not."

Achievement gap is a component of the Michigan Dept. of Education's new Top-to-Bottom ranking, though gender specifically is not a factor MED is tracking. A spokesperson says gender has not been a traditional indicator of achievement gap.

School districts and individual schools are able to track disparities in student achievement through equity audits. Khalifa has developed such a program and is in talks with districts in Michigan regarding its implementation.

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