SFGate.com, Monday, June 18, 2007
Experts worry that coed classrooms geared to girls put their counterparts at a disadvantage.
Janine DeFao, Chronicle Staff Writer
For more than a decade, the conventional wisdom has been that schools have shortchanged girls, who were ignored in the classroom as they lagged behind in math and science.
But now a growing chorus of educators and advocates for boys is turning that notion upside down.
Boys are the ones in trouble, they say. They are trailing girls in reading and writing, are more likely to get in trouble or be labeled as learning disabled, and are less likely to go to college.
The educators, citing emerging brain research, say that the two sexes learn differently and that schools are more geared to girls than to their ants-in-the-pants counterparts. But they are adopting strategies to help boys succeed, from playing multiplication baseball to handing out stress balls and setting up boys-only schools.
"The public schools teach to girls. You have to be able to follow the rules and color in the lines," said Livermore parent Missy Davis, who moved her son, Collin, to the private, all-boys Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland after he struggled in coed public and parochial settings. "Boys get labeled immature and disrupting. (Teachers) don't know how to utilize the energy."
Juanita McSweeney, a 30-year teaching veteran, experienced that energy two years ago when she had a class full of "strong boys" who outnumbered the girls in her fifth-grade class at Happy Valley Elementary in Lafayette.
"I was going nuts. ... My salvation that year was two words: Koosh balls," she said, referring to the toy balls covered with hundreds of soft rubber strands.
McSweeney had stumbled across a growing body of literature confirming what she had long intuited -- that boys and girls do learn differently -- and providing strategies to help keep boys, especially, focused and engaged.
"Instead of twiddling with your neighbor, you'd twiddle with your Koosh ball. The way to get rid of that extra energy seemed genius to me," she said.
McSweeney was so enthusiastic that this year the Lafayette School District provided gender training to its entire staff and parents by the Gurian Institute of Colorado. The firm has trained 30,000 teachers in gender differences and learning since it was founded in 2002 by Michael Gurian, a Spokane, Wash., family therapist and author who helped kick off the boys movement in 1996 with his book "The Wonder of Boys."
Among the neurological differences Gurian and others highlight, based on brain scans and other research:
-- Males use more cortical areas of the brain for spatial and mechanical functioning, while females use more for words and emotions -- meaning boys tend to benefit from hands-on learning, while girls are better auditory learners who write and use more words.
-- Boys have less of the "calming chemical" serotonin and more testosterone, making them more fidgety, impulsive and competition-driven.
-- Boys' brains go more frequently into a "rest state," leading to "zoning out" or moving around to try to stay focused.
While gender brain differences remain controversial -- only two years ago Harvard President Lawrence Summers lost his job after suggesting males may be more innately suited to science -- what may have been dismissed as pop science a decade ago is now getting serious attention from brain researchers.
"We can say confidently, and more and more confidently all the time, that the ways males and females on average are processing information is not the same," said Larry Cahill, a fellow of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at UC Irvine who last year published a review of studies on neurology and gender. "It's kind of a zeitgeist shift from the belief that this doesn't matter very much to, 'This might matter big time, and we need to figure out how.' "
The differences, Gurian said, mean five to seven boys in a coed class of 30 will struggle in a classroom where they need to "sit still, read and write a lot, and do a lot of busy work."
Those struggles are born out by a string of alarming statistics about boys. While girls have made strides in math and science, boys continue to lag in reading -- and even more significantly in writing, where the gap has widened -- on tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Boys are 2.5 times more likely to be suspended from school and 3.4 times more likely to be expelled, according to federal education statistics.
Two-thirds of special educational students are male. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 10 percent of boys have learning disabilities, compared with 6 percent of girls, and boys are 2.5 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Boys also are more likely to drop out of school. Since 1970, women's undergraduate enrollment in college has risen three times as fast as men's, and women now make up 57 percent of college students. Still, some people have questioned whether the so-called "boys crisis" exists.
A report last year by Education Sector, a Washington think tank, found that boys' reading and math scores on the national assessment test had improved since the 1970s. It said black and Hispanic boys may be failing but that race and class play a bigger a role than gender.
But "it's hard to ignore that we've got a boy problem on top of the race and class problem. Low-income boys are doing worse than low-income girls," said Judith Kleinfeld, a University of Alaska at Fairbanks psychology professor who last year started the Boys Project, an international consortium of researchers concerned about boys.
The brain research also is reigniting interest in single-gender education.
There were three public schools nationwide offering single-gender instruction in 1995 and 262 today, still a small fraction of the country's more than 90,000 public schools, according to Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Many more are in the pipeline with changes last fall to Title IX -- which banned sex discrimination in schools in 1972 -- that make it easier for schools to create voluntary single-gender classes and schools.
"The brain develops in a different sequence," said Sax, author of "Why Gender Matters" and "Boys Adrift," which will be published in August. "If you teach the same subject in the same way, you have girls who think geometry is tough and boys who think poetry is stupid."
One has only to walk into Jennifer Colker's classroom at the 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto to see gender differences in action. The 11-year-old public alternative school, which has separate classes for boys and girls, is the only single-gender public school in the Bay Area.
On a recent morning near the end of the school year, the eighth-grade boys in Colker's language arts and history class were buzzing as they worked independently making encyclopedias or history terms.
Boys bounced their knees, drummed the air, their desks -- or a neighbor -- with colored pencils and wandered the room. They rapped, laughed and called out for Colker's attention.
"Look what I'm using my pencil for," said Davion Tomlin, 13, of Hayward, stabbing a red licorice rope with his pencil before getting up to dump it in the trash.
When the girls filed in for next period, they sat quietly in their seats. The noise level rose considerably when they took out their encyclopedias, but most stayed rooted to their chairs.
"I have to adjust the lesson (with the boys) to have it be mobile and kinesthetic rather than auditory or visual," said Colker, who engages her male students in several games.
The school's executive director, Michelle Starkey, said its score on the state's Academic Performance Index has increased 167 points in three years, but it's hard to know how much is attributable to single-gender instruction because the school also has small class sizes and extra services on campus.
Having just boys in class also means the ability to tailor subjects to grab their attention, said John L. Morgan IV, a middle school English teacher at the 68-year-old private Town School for Boys in San Francisco, one of a handful of boys' schools in the Bay Area.
"I do 'Macbeth' because they love the gore," he said. He also doesn't hesitate to use gross humor.
At the 3-year-old Pacific Boychoir Academy, which is an outgrowth of the choir, Pamela Weimer uses as much hands-on instruction as she can in her math and science classes -- from tossing a baseball during multiplication drills to offering plenty of science labs.
"Boys need to be active all the time," said Weimer, who also heads the school. "It's physiological, not willful."
The approach has worked for recent eighth-grade graduate Collin Davis, who has attention deficit disorder and was getting labeled a troublemaker in his coed classes.
"You can be yourself and act crazy and wacky, just the stuff you wouldn't do around girls," said Collin.
"He's a different kid," said his father, Warren Davis. "He's doing better in school, but he's doing better in life."
For more information about boys' and girls' learning styles and single-sex classrooms, go to:
BY THE NUMBERS
2.5: The number of times boys are more likely than girls to be suspended from school.
3.4: The number of times boys are more likely than girls to be expelled from school.
66: Roughly the percentage of special education students who are male.
10: Roughly the percentage of boys who have learning disabilities, compared with 6 percent of girls.
2.5: The number of times boys are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
3: The number of times faster that women's undergraduate enrollment in college has risen compared with men since 1970.
57: The percentage of college students who are women.
E-mail Janine DeFao at firstname.lastname@example.org.