As a child, I used to look forward to the fabled moments in recess and gym class when we would play “girls versus boys.” While rare, it was a chance to go head-to-head with my classmates for gender supremacy. The stakes in gym class were bragging rights at best, but when we look at the current educational landscape, the competition between boys and girls is a bit more complicated. In recent years, we have seen the gender gap—the gap in average scores between males and females—reverse with girls surpassing boys in academic subjects like science and reading. This, not surprisingly, has led to a reincarnation of the battle of boys versus girls. But this time, school culture and societal inequality will be up for grabs.
Recently, David Brooks penned an editorial in the New York Times on the gender gap in our schools. Brooks cited research evidence to suggest that schools are geared towards female students, leaving boys at a disadvantage. This is not a wholly original argument, and the response from Soraya Chemalay suggests that any disadvantages that males face in school are but a microcosm of the larger gender inequities that females face in the world-at-large. While both Brooks and Chemalay are rightfully concerned, we must be careful to ensure that the education of children will not be taken as a zero-sum game, where one gender must win and one gender must lose.
For decades, a debate has raged about differences between boys and girls and if the differences we see in demeanor, attitude, and engagement of different subjects was due more to nature or nurture. Scholars have long regarded gender as a social construct. This concept argues that we (people and the laws we create) decide what it means to be a boy/man or a girl/woman. From early in life, boys and girls are taught to act in certain ways and told that they are fundamentally different. These messages come from our families, communities and the media, and they are often transmitted without much thought.
When all evidence is weighed, there are biological differences between boys and girls that may affect some school-related behaviors, but many of the differences that we perceive as ‘natural’ are actually the result of socialization. For this reason, it’s important that we begin to look carefully at the environments that we create for learning and how they can serve or disserve children across gender lines. Both Black girls and boys are struggling in school settings and we need to be aware of what works and how to replicate it.
A lack of awareness of the ways that we influence the behaviors and beliefs of boys and girls also means schools, just like all social institutions, may be suited for the privilege and benefit of particular genders. Historically, the concern was that boys were outpacing boys and that girls were pushed away from the science and mathematics fields. Recently, girls have begun to outpace boys academically and this is particularly visible within the Black community.
Single-sex schools represent one approach for addressing some of the observed differences between boys and girls. Schools like Urban Prep in Chicago and Girls Prep in New York City are designed to teach children not simply about reading, writing and arithmetic, but also to engage conversations about developing healthy views on masculinity and femininity. While the research evidence does not consistently show that same-sex education boosts academic achievement, many educators and students have identified single-sex schools as sites where co-educational pressures are reduced and curricula can be customized for the developmental needs of children. However, in the coming years, the legality of single-sex schools will continue to be raised as Americans inquire if separating children by gender is updated form of an old structure of educational segregation.
There are no simple solutions to educating children, whether boys or girls but we must think critically and creatively about optimizing the learning environment for all students. Given the differences that we observe between boys and girls are not biological, it is important we observe and change school cultures to make sure all children feel welcomed, supported, and challenged. For decades, education reform advocates have argued one gender receives better treatment in school and only recently are we seeing the seesaw tip in favor of girls. The solution is not to argue if boys or girls are “better.” Instead, we should look at what has been done to shift the balance of the seesaw and capitalize on this moment to see if we can find equilibrium. Generations of children are waiting for adults to find common ground, not dig into a new version of old gender wars.
Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website