There is another take on how poorly boys do in our schools, one that notes some positives and provides more explanation about girls’ experience. My brother mentioned years ago that schools generically favoring girls might not mean that boys ultimately got a worse education. Learning that life isn’t fair and that the rules of school are not exactly the rules of life is actually some advantage for boys overall.
Some boys, anyway. We are still stuck with the problem of an unacceptable percentage of boys not ever catching on in life.
There is more genetic variation in boys to begin with. Males are “an enormous genetic experiment carried out by females.” Boys have more range in height, more range in IQ, more range in coordination, more albinism, autism – everything. Any system which is geared to the general middle of the bell curve is going to have more boys falling off the edges. A girl at any given point toward the extremes may be as likely as a boy to not fit the system – but there will be more boys at those points. Rather than a boy problem per se, we may be seeing a “doesn’t fit” rate that illustrates the educational system’s problem with anyone outside the middle range, though we perceive that as a boy problem.
A system which includes the entire population must always be under time and financial pressure to address the great middle. The actual difference in the bell curve of boys and the bell curve of girls is persistent, but not visually dramatic. To better visualise what I am describing, imagine a steeper bell curve overlaid on a flatter one. A school system addressing itself to the needs of the midline is going to favor whoever is under that steeper curve, while the denizens under the flatter curve are more likely to have problems.
So let’s keep that in the back of our minds throughout the rest of the discussion. What I am describing as the boys’ situation might turn out to be “what happens beyond one standard deviation in either direction, more of whom will be boys.”
Greater selective pressure creates more spectacular successes and failures. If the selective pressure on boys in school is greater, boys will respond by developing more strategies. This is in fact what we find. Boys are much more likely to choose alternative routes to success. My oldest son developed dramatic self-monitoring and self awareness skills not present in his earliest years. He also (not consciously) poured much of his energy into oral and written fluency, which were excellent school-skills and kept teachers off his back about his squirmy, chattering behavior and his poor fine-motor skills. He became articulate, witty, and charming in a way adults like. Other boys become immersed in something school-usable, such as computers or natural science – or which at least develops skills that are school-usable, such as role-playing games, military info, or sports statistics.
Boys move out into the worlds of machines or sports to find an identity more frequently. Male musicians form more of their own bands and exchange their musical skills. Females are more likely to keep their musical abilities in adult-supervised tracks. Boys tell more jokes, do more comic voices, tell more stories – they perform in conversation much more - but are less often trying out for the school play. “Trying out” for school plays is barely known among boys. If you show up, you’re in somewhere, and have you got a friend who would like to be a milkman in scene three?
Boys bust out of the system more often, for good or ill. They are much more likely to be autodidacts. My second son was a daydreamer and sneak-reader. Those usually survive but don’t excel in school, though they eventually find something school-useful to lean on by the end. In a small class in a small Christian school, his eccentricities were more charming than irritating and he throve. In his one large classroom in preschool, no one picked up on the fact that he could already read well. Public school would have been a roll of the dice for him.
Boys find alternate routes off the bottom end as well: crime, bullying, teasing, passive-aggressive stances. Those are routes to succeed by salvaging something in the short term, at long term cost.