SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Single-gender education gains ground as boys lag
San Francisco Chronicle


June 18, 2007

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.

Juanita McSweeney, a 30-year teaching veteran, two years ago had a class full of "strong boys" who outnumbered the girls in her fifth-grade class at Happy Valley Elementary in Lafayette, Calif.

"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.

"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 the University of California-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.' "

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.

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.


For more information about boys' and girls' learning styles and single-sex classrooms, go to:


E-mail Janine DeFao at jdefao(at)
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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska