Do boys learn differently than girls?

Jason Baeten thinks so. He taught for 10 years at the Julia Morgan School for Girls, and this week he opened an all-boys middle school in Berkeley, the East Bay School for Boys. Their first assignment was to build their own desks, which was fun (and at times, sort of funny) to watch:

We’ll have a story about this new school in Sunday’s paper. In the meantime, I’m curious about the idea of designing instruction around girls or boys, which is becoming more common in public schools. Gender-specific classrooms have been considered in Oakland Unified, though lately that’s been overshadowed by lots of other changes, school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge told me this week.

Should the district create gender-specific schools or, at some places, classrooms within a school? What advantages and disadvantages do you see with that approach?

Some have proposed schools with an even more specific group in mind: African-American boys. Chris Chatmon, of 100 Black Men of the Bay Area, wants to open charter schools in Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco modeled after the Eagle Academy for Young Men in the Bronx, NY.

Here’s an excerpt from the Eagle Academy Foundation’s website:

Our mission is a direct response to the urgent need to reverse abysmal graduation and college completion rates among young men in urban centers, particularly African-American males. The Eagle Academy Foundation tailored curriculum is based on the developmental stages and learning styles of young men as well as the unique challenges facing urban youth.

Is this what Oakland needs? If not, are there approaches to pedagogy and changes to the traditional school structure that should be used to make school more engaging to all kids? Are there schools or teachers that are doing it now? Tell us your ideas.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • CarolineSF

    Best wishes to Mr. Baeten and I hope the school thrives (despite not being a huge fan of private schools), but boys’ schools are hardly a new notion, so why is this school getting so much press? The Chronicle did an unabashed puff piece. If he’s as great at running a school as he is at PR, the place should be a superstar in no time.

  • Katy Murphy

    I thought I remembered hearing about single-sex classrooms in Oakland Unified — and Jody London has just informed me that Claremont Middle School in North Oakland started all-boys and all-girls math and science classes last year.

    How is that going? Have other schools done the same?

  • Jessie Thaler

    I’m a former Claremont English teacher (though I didn’t teach any single gender classes- those were being piloted in math and science only last year) who now teaches 7th and 8th grade English at an all-boys private school. We’ve only had three days of school so far, so I can’t make too many observations yet, but I’d assert that there are substantial qualitative differences between an all-boy classroom in a mixed-gender school and an all-boy school. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d definitely be an advocate for single gender public or charter schools.

  • http://www.movingforwardeducation.com Lacy Asbill

    Gender has a powerful impact on the self-conception of young people, and is an organizing principle of society–of course these social realities are alive in the classroom!

    The fact is, boys and girls struggle with distinct social and emotional issues, and these issues impact their experiences in school. Our boys (esp. boys of color) learn early on that they must harden up in order to become men; our girls learn that their appearance is their most valuable quality. Educational spaces that engage with the unique challenges facing girls and boys are able to impact student motivation and engagement in a powerful way.

    As someone who runs gender-specific after-school tutoring and mentoring programs, I see first hand that gendered classrooms have a different kind of impact on young people. Our boys so desperately crave a space where they can interact with positive young men, and need education about how to experience and express their feelings before they act on impulse. Our girls struggle so much with academic self-confidence and voice, and blossom in a space where they feel safer asking questions.

    Gender is still a way that we all make sense of the world–it is powerful to acknowledge this reality.

  • Nextset

    Hmmm.. There is a “problem” if that is what you want to call it – with the physical differences between the blacks and the whites involving time of onset of puberty. If we talking about OUSD policy and issues we are usually not talking about Ken and Barbie. We are talking about minority kids, blacks and browns – I call them “Otis and Latifa”. The puberty thing is big especially if we are dealing with Asian competition with the Black/Brown kids.

    Roaring hormones can interfere with calculus. Or Reading at 8th grade level when you are 18.

    All people are not created equal. So what is the school district supposed to do about the racial imbalances in puberty – as well as the gender issues tied up in all this?

    Simply put, the different races and genders have different needs, and it’s not politically correct to admit it, say it, or fix it. And somebody is getting hurt by this while somebody else is at an advantage.

    Brave New World.

  • Cass

    Hey Katy,

    Two places to look into: Westlake MS has an all AfAm boy intervention class. And Urban Prep Academy in Chicago’s Englewood, just sent their first graduating class all to college.

  • Hot R

    Differentiated learning is what every good teacher does in the classroom already taking into account ethnic, gender, learning disabled, socio-economic advantages/disadvantages, parenting, homeless, language development, etc. in everyday instruction. No wonder it’s such an engaging job!

    The polar bear in the corner of the room, is that girls have accelerated under our current system and the achievement of boys has declined. African-American girls in high school treat their African-American boy counterparts like “children” – understanding their immaturity and willingness to engage in behavior not calculated to succeed.

    In my humble opinion this is due to lack of role models in their lives as so many boys have single parent (female) head of the household. Can a group of strong male teachers reverse this trend by putting males in all boy academies? I agree it is worth a try if a SUSTAINED effort can be made over 5-6 years of schooling.

  • Nextset

    Hot R: “The polar bear in the corner of the room, is that girls have accelerated under our current system…”

    I see no evidence that black girls are doing “well”.

    Granted they are doing differently. The literacy rates, rates for unwed motherhood, early motherhood, marriage rates and income levels, crime and disease levels do not say black girls are improving, especially vs non-black girls.

    The job of the public schools is to educate the proletariat so that their lives are better than the lives of their parent(s), to make them do better in the economy not worse. I don’t see this occurring in the urban school districts mainly because those “schools” (I use the word lightly) seem to think it’s OK if the kids grow up like Topsy.

    The schools need to give clear instruction on the concepts of duty, responsibility, and carrying your own weight in society. The beginning of all this is to teach students that no one owes them (or any adult) a scrap of food or a drop of water or anything else in life.

  • Jim Mordecai


    I have a different view. I think there are obligations and responsibilities within families and within the Nation.

    Instead of teaching students they are an individual, an island to themselves, I believe students should be taught they are a combination of individual and group membership with obligations and responsibilities that go both ways.

    When the serviceman/servicewoman is injured in performing his/her duty there is a responsibility to that serviceman/servicewoman by the government. Having children is a responsibility and obligation to protect and nurture.

    We currently live in a world where a boat can sail into the S.F. Bay and a nuclear device can be discharged as a consequence of our nation’s foreign policy; that the dead will be the unintended consequence and the living will understand from the ashes they are not just individuals.

    Under law the government must owe each person something important as corporations have jumped on the 14th amendment to have artificial personhood of corporations to be treated the same as a natural citizen and enjoy the equal protection of the nations laws. If the government did not owe each person something then corporations would not have gone to court over 200 times in exercising their right of personhood under law.

    I disagree that we owe each other nothing and should teach that lesson to our children. Instead, I think we have mutual obligations in a range of roles from family member to member of our nation that exist regardless if we pay them attention.

    And, it is our nation organized on the basic principle that natural law provides all men/women with the power to make government legitimate but that legitimacy is loaned to the government as long as that government recognizes the rights of the individual. The Bill of Rights and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments reflect that American citizens are owed their natural rights.

    Some would add to those rights and others would restrict those rights but the idea that the individual has rights is the basis of the concept of self-government in this Republic and believe should be taught to our children.

    Jim Mordecai

  • oakey

    Mr. Mordecai,

    With all the good intentions, I’ve watched Oakland deteriorate to an almost unlivable dystopia under political leadership that think like you (and get voted in—over and over again–by people like you. Watching the ongoing failure of the school system to educate kids in this city is Testament #1.

  • http://www.liseeliot.com Lise Eliot

    The answer is “No” boys and girls do not learn differently. The neurological differences between the sexes is trivial, especially in childhood. Please read my recent book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” to see the real data on boy-girl differences and overwhelming similarity. Plus, I cover the educational research on single-gender vs. coeducation, which is absolutely equivocal. In spite of some recent Hawthorne effects, there is no proven benefit of single-sex education, and considerable risk of exaggerating stereotypes and reducing the opportunity for girls and boys to learn to work together and be comfortable competing against each other.

    The range of verbal abilities, spatial abilities,reading skill, math, science, self-control, physicality, empathy, etc. is far greater within groups of boys or girls than between them; so what is the basis of segregation? If we’re going to separate boys and girls according to their chromosomes, why not separate classrooms by hair color or height?

    The key, as one commentor says, is differentiated instruction: treating each child as an individual. Otherwise, we will revert to a world where girls sit around and talk about their feelings (when they should be learning the woodworking skills the boys are getting), and boys are schooled in manliness (through exaggerated hazing, a common byproduct in of all-male schools). The truth is that boys benefit from girls’ verbal skills and girls benefit from competing against boys, based on research of sibling effects in families.

    Please, please, don’t believe the hype about boy/girl “learning differences.” There is no neuroscientific basis for this; it’s just a lot of snake oil sold by so-called educational experts who are making good money off their books and inservice teacher trainings.

    Sorry for the rant, but this movement has gotten out of hand. It is segregation, pure and simple, which the Supreme Court ruled against in 1954. I have no doubt that schools like Urban Prep are doing a fine job, but their success has little to do with being single-gender, and everything to do with strong academic focus, outstanding mentoring, and belief in the students.

  • Nextset

    This thread reminds me of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

    I just got back from an out of state trip and was noticing for the first time a US Marriott with Eastern European male housekeeping staff. That’s a new one.

    When I travel I note how Negro-free travel industry service employment has become. (Airline employees, bus drivers, taxi drivers, hotel workers, janitors, waiters, bathroom attendants, police & emergency service workers, parking lot attendants, etc.)

    Not like I remember things. But then, I still remember when all the CA housekeepers such as Meg Whitman’s looked like Whoopi Goldberg in Corrina, Corrina. Sure we can talk about high skill jobs, but there are a lot of low skill jobs that you-know-who no longer seem to be eligible for. So no starting up the ladder for them. Entry level jobs are required to get to the higher levels.

    While we are debating whether it’s politically correct to segregate boys and girls in classrooms we are turning out a horde of unemployable blacks to a really interesting job market. Where they get to compete with Eastern Europeans for service jobs (and spouses and housing) around the US not to mention Mexicans, Asians and the rest of the third world.

    The current educational model used in public schools to educate underclass/prole minority students doesn’t work. The male/female behavior is problematic, perhaps because of the badly behaving models prole minority youth tend to come from. It’s obvious to me that public schools should be seeking to reprogram minority prole youth away from their “cultural norms”. Yes, we probably need to segregate the sexes for a lot of this until we can retrain them in how to behave (especially around puberty). It’s a no-brainer.

    But this presupposes the public schools have any intention to train prole minority youth to make it in the Brave New World. My point is they really have no such intention. Urban public schools exist only for pacification of the minorities and the aggrandizement of it’s administrators and teacher’s unions, not for the social mobility of it’s students. The schools operators actually have disdain for the students and are unconcerned how long they live and what their annual incomes are at any point in time. That’s too bad.

    Simply put, OUSD is not running Dunbar High School. We (black folks) need Dunbar Schools, not Feelgood Academy or What’s Happening Now U.

    So Lise Eliot: I don’t think you are competent in discussing how to socialize black kids into productive adults. Your argument sounds more like theory rather than the product of any real world multi generational experience. Your writing also seems to ignore the problems of sex, puberty and adolescence in favor of testing younger children with flashcards. You minimize the daily problem of dealing with tweens and teens – have you worked in a classroom? I still have memories of a 9th (maybe 10th) grader slapping his “girlfriend” so hard we hear it all over the room because he thought she’d been insufficiently obedient to his direction. She immediately got up and came over to me and said “he didn’t mean it”. This was several decades ago, the stories I hear now are much worse.

    There are a lot of sexual issues with pubescent prole kids. If the schools want to segregate them they probably have their reasons and should be free to deal with it as they see fit. If it is counterproductive, they will change it.

  • On the Fence

    I didn’t hear Lise Eliot discuss how to socialize black kids into productive adults anywhere in the above post, but I did hear the other points that were made. I actually found this to be one of the more informative posts.

    I was guilty of buying into the overblown and overstated hype regarding single-sex education myself. So I very much appreciate Lise Eliot calling attention to the “equivocal” data out there. I followed up this thread by reading through the most recent postings on this subject in the NY Times and found that although anectodal stories supporting single-sex education abound, in each of the articles that I read the reporter was careful to explicitly state that the data is, in fact, equivocal on the subect.

    Remember, too, that when parents pay close to 20K for a private single-sex school or go through the application process for a single-sex charter, the children are already significantly different than their peers.

  • Nextset

    My focus is not on mainstream kids – or national average kids. I react harshly when I see general rule citations being used in situations I see as notorious exceptions to the general rule.

    I feel that we have an educational emergency – they months are passing quickly and we send class year after class year out into the Brave New World having wasted what time they had to get prepared. And it bothers me when I see so many other people who are better prepared who just didn’t do to Oakland, Los Angeles and the similar urban Unified School Districts. They can move into a city from nowhere (at 18-21) and stay our of trouble and find work and housing. Otis and Latifa and their families have been around for generations and are such a mess, with more problems than in previous generations.

    When I grew up in the East Bay every generation was doing better than the previous. And we went to public schools. By better I mean better educated, better mannered, better able to compete in the workplace, better dental and health issues. For East Bay Blacks the progress has been reversed with downward mobility the issue. But they are (at least while young) not at all unhappy, challenged or stresses. Matter of fact they are kept quite pacified.

    Does sex segregation help matters for the underclass? Yes. Both sexes learn better when the behavior is controlled. Do we expect this to be born out in a national sample overloaded with non-minority non-underclass? No.