A Trinidad Perspective: Why are our boys under – performing?



Students of the Richard Ishmael Secondary School engaging Minister Manickchand in a discussion[Trinidad Express] – Last week, the Ministry of Education published the names of the top 200 students in the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) examination. As usual, girls dominated the list, with just 26 per cent of the top-scorers being boys. This disparity is not only present among the top students, but at all levels. A Ministry report on the 2001-2004 SEA examination found that “female students attained higher scores than their male counterparts in all three subject areas – Mathematics, Language Arts, and Creative Writing”.

The Sunday Express spoke to two lecturers from The University of the West Indies, in Education and in Gender Studies, to get their views on why boys are under-performing and what can be done about it.

School of Education lecturer and trainer Raymond Hackett said, “The education system is not meeting the requirements of anybody.”

And Gabrielle Hosein, a feminist and lecturer in the Gender Studies Department at UWI, said, “The issue only arises in a particular type of system. Either you socialise boys like girls, or you recognise that girls are doing well on bad terms.”

But, in her book The War Against Boys, American philosopher and feminist Christina Hoff Sommers observes that “Re-socialising boys to play more like girls has been part of the gender equity agenda for several decades” and argues that “this movement to change children’s concepts of themselves is invasive and authoritarian.”

Hackett noted, “Under performance is not universal across all settings.” Citing global reports, he argued that socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and geographic location wall affected how children performed academically – i.e. children from well-off families in urban settings did better in school. “Ethnicity will generate the kind of values you have,” he said. In the SEA list, 76 per cent of the boys had Indian surnames.

Hosein identified poverty, violence and homophobia as factors which resulted in boys doing less well than girls in schools, although she said these issues impacted more on males at secondary level. “The homophobia part always surprises,” she said, “but it has to do with the way that masculinity is defined as not-femininity, the pressures boys face to be hyper-masculine, the fact that school is something that girls are now seen to do and to do school is therefore to be like girls.’

Hosein defined hyper-masculinity as excess physicality, violence, control, and domination. Hackett made a similar argument. “Affirmations of masculinity can hamper boys’ education,” he said. “Boys look at other boys who study, who ask questions in class, as nerds.”

However, American psychologists Anthony Pellegrini and Jane Perlmutter in a 1998 study on childhood play in school made a distinction between rough-and-tumble play, which most boys enjoyed, and bullies, who were generally disliked.

Hackett and Hosein both pointed to the different treatment of boys in the home as impacting on their ability to do schoolwork. Hosein said, “Girls are seen as needing supervision and excessive monitoring in order to grow up properly as girls. Boys are given too much freedom and too little supervision.”

Hackett echoed this sentiment, saying, “Girls are regularly supervised and given tasks in the home, whereas boys are allowed to do what they want.”

Where the two academics disagreed was on what needed to be done in order to improve boys’ academic performance. “The idea that people of one sex learn better through certain approaches, like active learning could only take place in a gendered environment.” Hosein said. “The research shows that everybody learns better through active learning, including adults.”

Hackett, however, said, “There’s a difference between girls and boys and how they perceive things.”

A 2012 report commissioned by the British government concluded that “It is clear from research, and to most people observing children, that there are cognitive differences between girls and boys.” In terms of getting boys to read more, the report noted that, whereas girls preferred to read fiction and magazines and poetry, boys liked science-fiction/fantasy and sports-related and war/spy novels. Yet, out of 1,200 British primary school teachers surveyed, only one was able to name a writer that boys liked. (See Box One, recommendation #3.)

Hackett argued that schools needed more male teachers if boys were to do better. “Most female teachers seem not to understand boys’ behaviour,” he said. “If a woman has brothers or grew up in an environment with a lot of boys, then she could understand boys.” Hackett said that even the very examples a teacher might use to teach boys, such as teaching velocity by using cricket, could impact on how well boys learned.

But Hosein said: “There’s a lot of talk of too many female teachers, too many female single-headed houses, and too many girls in schools as the problem. This is problematic for many reasons, of course, not only because it blames girls and women for the situation of boys and men, but also because it positions women as unable to be role models for boys and men or for all humans, not just girls. The solution is to raise the status associated with femininity such that it isn’t positioned as emasculating, but a viable model for being human.”

But Sommers argues that “In pursuit of a misguided radical egalitarian ideal, many in our society have insisted that the sexes are the same. In our schools, boys and girls are treated as if they are cognitively and emotionally interchangeable. We must now relearn what previous generations never doubted: the sexes are different. It is more challenging to educate males than females.”

Moreover, this perspective has also infiltrated policy in Trinidad and Tobago. A 2009 Education Ministry report, although titled “Gender Issues in Education and Intervention Strategies to Increase Participation Of Boys” found that boys were performing badly but concluded that policy-makers “should ensure that programmes to raise achievement seek to do so for all students, rather than simply focusing on boys.” The report was prepared by four researchers, all women. Box One summarises some of the 58 recommendations in the report, most of which are based on unproven feminist theories.

Sommers rejects these ideas, writing, “Children need to be moral more than they need to be in touch with their feelings. They need to be well educated more than they need classroom self-esteem exercises and support groups. Nor are they improved by having their femininity or masculinity ‘reinvented’.”

Box 2 summarises recommendations taken from official reports done in Britain, Australia, and other countries which have taken action to improve boys’ performance in schools.

Hackett said, “No one really know what causes boys to under-perform, there is much research still to be done.” His recommendation: “We need to start talking to boys, to find out what they want.”

Selected recommendations of Ministry of Education Report on Boys

 1. Show greater respect for the practices that make women and girls successful—persistence, spending time on tasks, taking responsibility for their own learning, obeying school rules, and arriving at school with a greater sense of preparedness to work (Clarke, 2007).

2. Examine the ways in which popular culture could be engaged in changing the current image of manliness/masculinity that is proving so detrimental to so many boys and men (Clarke, 2007; Skelton, 2001).

3. Recognise that interventions designed to motivate underachieving boys through football study centres and “boy-friendly” texts will fail to reach boys (high and low achievers) who would like to, or choose to, invest in and take up alternative masculinities. Such interventions employ the very discourses that frame academic study as “non-masculine” and “feminine” and can only operate to perpetuate the discourse that “real boys don‘t work”. (Renold, 2007).

4. Discontinue school practices that regard some activities as the exclusive domain of boys and others of girls (Clarke, 2007; Evans, 1999).

5. Eliminate the gendered curriculum that still prevails, especially at the secondary level (Clarke, 2007; Goldberg & Bruno, 1999).

6. Remove tracking and selective systems within the classroom and among classes, which may accentuate differences in the learning experience of students (De Lisle, 1997).

7. Train and encourage schools to engage in action research in order to solve some of their own idiosyncratic problems (De Lisle, 1997).

8. Pay greater attention to the issue of differential performance among males and females, by placing greater value on school improvement practices that minimize gender differences in access and achievement (De Lisle, Smith, & Jules, 2005).

9. Pay greater attention to helping all primary school students reach defined basic competency levels in reading and writing, using a range of proven strategies, such as partnered reading, a literacy hour, diversifying male students‘ interest in reading, and parental involvement in literacy activities both at home and school (De Lisle, Smith, & Jules, 2005).

10. Review policies on streaming (Evans, 1999; Noble & Bradford, 2000).

11. Undertake early intervention in the lives of students once persistent failure is apparent (Lall, 2004).

12. Develop support systems that will provide fora for the acquisition of coping skills with regard to anxiety, anger, frustration, and failure (Lall, 2004).

Source: Ministry of Education

2. Approaches shown to improve boys’ academic performance.

· More teacher-led work

· Structured environment

· Clearly defined objectives and instructions

· High expectations

· Greater emphasis on silent work

· Frequent resting

· Single-sex classes

· Phonics-based reading

·Male role models

Source: Sommers, 2013



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