March 27th, 2010

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The intriguing educational gap

For some time, the question of whether boys/young men are falling behind educationally has been hotly debated. As Nicholas Kristoff observes, the evidence continues to mount that we have a widening gender gap.

Kristoff also offers a few theories about why. My own theory actually stems from my mother's pioneering work in drop out prevention. In a number of tracking studies in Rhodes Island public schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my mother discovered you could identify the children most at risk for dropping out in ages 10-12 as early as the end of elementary school. Those children in the 40th-60th percentile of their class were most likely to drop out of high school. The statistical correlation was significant, not trivial, and held when adjusted for income and other factors.

My mother's theory was that these kids were most at risk precisely because they were average -- therefore no one cared. They had nothing to make them feel special, or that they had a future in school. There were programs designed for "gifted" students performing on the higher end of the curve, and programs designed to help "under-performers" at the lower end of the curve. And nothing for the bulk of the curve.

My mother tested this theory with Project Discovery. It targeted students in 40th-60th percentile in grades 4-6. Parents and children were informed that their children had been selected for Project discovery because testing had shown that they had "special aptitudes and talents" that made their children "likely to succeed in high school and college." Children in the program were encouraged to think of themselves as a special group and tracking of the cohort was portrayed as part of measuring their "special aptitudes" (which was their "willingness to learn new things" and "ability to get along with each other" and other things that their teachers routinely told them they needed to do but which we told them they had a "special aptitude for").

The result was a measurable decrease in the drop out rate among the cohort increasing over time. That is to say, that each year fewer children dropped out, as the idea that being selected for Project Discovery meant you had a "special aptitude" that would make you more likely to succeed in college took hold.

I have a suspicion that this is what is happening with average boys. We have a number of programs that were designed to improve girl performance in math, and encouraging girl performance in math has been an educational priority for at least 20 years. But average boys are just . . . average. Like the children in Project Discovery, they have nothing that makes them feel there is anything special about them, or any particular reward for trying.

The idea here is not to pretend that doing average is doing special. No one in Project Discovery was ever told that they were doing better than they were. What they were told was that what they were doing would make them successful in getting into college -- which was true. As long as they didn't drop out, they would be able to get into decent schools. The trick was to get them to believe it.