Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bumper sticker for a new century: “Well-behaved girls please their teachers”

This study has been getting a lot of attention this week. Here’s Christina Hoff Sommers in the Times:
Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college. Why? A study coming out this week in The Journal of Human Resources gives an important answer. Teachers of classes as early as kindergarten factor good behavior into grades — and girls, as a rule, comport themselves far better than boys.

The study’s authors analyzed data from more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that boys across all racial groups and in all major subject areas received lower grades than their test scores would have predicted.

The scholars attributed this “misalignment” to differences in “noncognitive skills”: attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys.

No previous study, to my knowledge, has demonstrated that the well-known gender gap in school grades begins so early and is almost entirely attributable to differences in behavior. The researchers found that teachers rated boys as less proficient even when the boys did just as well as the girls on tests of reading, math and science. (The teachers did not know the test scores in advance.) If the teachers had not accounted for classroom behavior, the boys’ grades, like the girls’, would have matched their test scores.
The commentary that I’ve read has focused entirely on how this means that boys are now academically disadvantaged compared to girls. I don’t doubt that the phenomenon the study describes is bad for boys, but I think it’s every bit as bad for girls, and maybe worse. The “classroom behavior” “skills” that the study identifies—“attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization,” all based on teacher reports—sound a lot like how a school would describe kids who do as they’re told, always pay attention, are never difficult, comply with all “expectations,” and don’t draw attention to themselves in way that makes trouble. (Call me a cynic, but I can’t help but think that “learning independence” means something closer to “don’t bother the teacher” than to “think independently.”)

If school rewards girls because they are more docile and compliant with the expectations of authority figures, that’s hardly good news for girls. For one thing, those are exactly the traits we shouldn’t want to develop in the people who will one day be deciding our elections. And even if we just look narrowly at the kids’ future employment: are those really the traits that will enable those girls to someday succeed on an equal basis with those “poorly behaved” boys? Or would being assertive and strong-willed potentially come in handy? (What happened to that old bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women never make history”?)

That this study is somehow good news for girls is a conclusion you could reach only if you think of education entirely in terms of maximizing grades, or entirely in terms of producing the ideal Walmart cashier.

Sommers concludes that “fairness today requires us to address the serious educational deficits of boys and young men.” Ugh, I can’t help but fear where that’s going: the solution is to make sure that schools train boys to be much more docile and compliant. Instead, how about we re-examine our “expectations” and our educational goals, and start encouraging traits that will enable all kids to become assertive and independent-minded members of a democratic society?

Related post here.


FedUpMom said...

Chris, I absolutely agree. I would offer one re-translation, though: I think when teachers talk about "learning independence", what they mean is the kids' ability to carry out their teacher-assigned work with minimal input or direction. It's partly "don't bother the teacher", and it's partly "read my mind and produce this thing I want you to produce."

Chris said...

Thanks, FedUpMom. The whole conversation is so screwy. If the qualities that the girls are being rewarded for don't actually affect how well they learn the subject matter, why wouldn't the solution be to rethink whether we should promote those qualities? But instead, it's apparently to make sure the boys have those qualities, too!

Unknown said...

As an aspiring teacher, I find this post very interesting and thought-provoking. If teachers take behavior into consideration in a student's grade, students may concentrate all efforts into behaving well and consequently have much less time to devote to thinking creatively and even just DOING the assignment. A phenomenon like this begs this question: is this why women still cannot break through the glass ceiling? Does the positive affirmation of girls' behavior in school reinforce society's tendency to exclude women from CEO and CFO positions? Girls are rewarded for compliant behavior, for adhering to the teacher's wishes, etc. Women are "rewarded" in terms of societal praise for taking the lower, more obedient positions. I'm not saying that teachers should not exercise behavior management; merely that they should think about the larger implications that their inclusion of behavior in the grade is having upon their students in the long run.

Chris said...

Mehaglin -- Thanks for the comment! As I think I wrote somewhere else, the "problem kids" are punished for not learning passive compliance, and the "well-behaved" kids are punished by learning it.