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Bad Boys: Educating the Most Difficult Students

This week readers sent me two articles that, despite being on different topics, are connected. The first discussed a report that showed DC charter schools expelling students at a much higher rate, and for much smaller infractions, than DC public schools. (New York City public schools, for frame of reference, cannot expel any students--they can only suggest and push for transfers to different schools or alternative programs.) The second discussed the behavioral and learning problems faced by boys in traditional academic settings, and the fact that men are consistently lagging behind women in college graduation rates.

The first article confirmed one of my long-standing critiques of charter schools--namely, that to the extent that they get better results than their public counter-parts, this can be attributed to their kicking out students who cause problems. Disruptive students, who waste class time, distract their peers, talk back to teachers, and start arguments with peers, are undeniably one of the biggest problems faced by low-performing schools. But someone has to teach these kids, and while the question of whether schools should be allowed to expel students (and for what infractions) is germane, it is a separate issue from the ones I'm discussing in this blog post. The bottom line is, the kids in our public school classrooms have myriad educational, emotional, and behavioral needs.

Now, without the statistics in front of me, I'm going to venture a guess that--based on what I know of detention and suspension statistics in our school--the vast majority of the kids who get expelled are boys. And this brings me to the topic of the next article. Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against the Boys, explains that since the 1970s, when attitudes towards women's education improved, universities became more meritocratic (thus accepting the most qualified candidates regardless of gender), and a labor-intensive economy shifted to a knowledge-based one, women have caught up to and then out-paced men in accumulating post-secondary education.

I'm not sure I agree with Hoff Sommers' implication that the trends leading to girls' educational advancement have, in turn, been the forces that allowed boys to fall behind by making classrooms more "feelings-centered" and moving "further and further from boys' characteristic sensibilities." Nevertheless, her question of what must be done to help boys succeed is, in fact, a question that could perhaps yield lower rates of detention, suspension, and expulsion, and higher rates of academic success across both genders. Hoff Summers suggests some solutions to engage boys with school, including more "boy-friendly" reading assignments, more opportunities for physical activity during the day, more hands-on projects, and more male teachers (as well as female teachers equipped to address boys' needs.)

That last suggestion, in particular, I have to grudgingly accept. I'd like to believe that the gender of the teachers shouldn't matter, ultimately, as far as managing student behavior is concerned. However, this past term, I experienced a great deal of difficulty in trying to reign in one particular class--a class that is almost exclusively male, which I was team-teaching with a female special-education teacher. At the semester mark, the administration switched my co-teachers, so that now I team-teach almost the same roster of kids with a male special-education teacher. The difference has been as night and day: Despite my co-teacher's relatively easy-going and unflappable manner--and the fact that he employs, as far as I can tell, the same disciplinary tactics as his predecessor--the boys who previously acted out now have turned docile. One glance from him, and they give up whatever mischief they thought they were attempting and grudgingly return to their seats.

The strange thing is, they appear to need both of us in the class: On a day when I was chaperoning a trip, they apparently gave my co-teacher a hard time. But when they have a male and female teacher present simultaneously, it seems to work wonders on their behavior. (I have all kinds of pop-psychology theories about why this is, none of which I'll entertain here.) At one point, one of my worst offenders from last term called me over to his desk.

"Miss," he said, "I hate how we can't get away with anything anymore!"

I burst out laughing. "Why do you think that is?" I asked.

"Because he comes over to our desks when we're about to do something!"

"But I come over to your desks too," I replied.

"That's different! You're a female. He's...a dude." His peers nodded in agreement, as though this response explained everything.

The boys in my 10th grade class have benefited enormously from simply having another male teacher in the class along with me. What specifically it is about his presence, I can't say--but I can't deny that these boys are suddenly accomplishing a heck of a lot more in class.

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