Globe and Mail

Schools told to fix boys' low grades

Monday, August 27, 2001
The Globe and Mail

Trying to help the struggling boys catch up to the high-flying girls, a Toronto-area school board is requiring all schools to develop written plans on how to deal with problems specific to each sex.

The move, a response to a cavernous gender gap in Ontario's provincewide tests, is driven by the Durham school board's sense that boys are dragging down overall literacy rates.

Ontario's five-year-old system of tests obliges schools and boards to publish their results, study them and develop improvement plans. But though boys lag behind girls in every board, only the Durham District School Board requires its schools to attend explicitly to the issue.

"It's my belief we'll never get scores up until we do some serious intensive work with our young men," said Beverley Freedman, a superintendent with the Durham board, which oversees 118 schools and 67,000 students.

The board may be the first in Canada to adopt such a gender-specific requirement. A spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Public School Boards said she had never heard of one like it before.

The gender requirement flies in the face of the Ontario Education Ministry's policy that does not address gender issues in literacy but stresses schoolwide improvements that help all students.

Just 49 per cent of Durham's Grade 6 students reached the provincial standard in writing in the 1999-2000 provincewide tests, the last year for which results are available. But 59 per cent of girls met the standard compared to just 39 per cent of boys. Those numbers were roughly the same as the Ontario average. And the gap remained large on Grade 10 literacy tests, both in Durham and provincewide.

The rest of the country is not greatly different, according to Statistics Canada data from a 1998 nationwide sampling of students: 55 per cent of 13-year-old girls read at an advanced level, compared to 33 per cent of boys.

Durham's gender plans, which must be in place for September in all elementary and secondary schools, mirror the attempts to help girls overcome perceived gender bias in previous years. Introducing male role models, bringing in male authors to conduct readings, attempting to buy more books and magazines geared to boys' interests and finding new, less girl-centred teaching methods are among the strategies Durham schools are adopting.

"I think it's a great idea," said Lori McMulkin of Pickering, who has two sons aged 11 and 13 in Durham schools. She said it is difficult to find books that boys like to read.

"I'd rather be outside playing hockey," said her son Matt, the 13-year-old, "but if I have to read I will read."

Matt likes mysteries and comic books. He said boys tend to be behind the girls because "they just don't want to do anything. Laziness. They just want to sit around and play."

The focus is not entirely on boys in Durham. Schools are continuing to bring in female scientists, math whizzes and computer experts to encourage girls. While girls outperform boys in math in Durham, they tend to have less confidence in this area, surveys have found.

In general, Ms. Freedman said, boys begin school at a disadvantage: they tend to be more physically active than girls and have less language development. Schools then put boys at a greater disadvantage by the way they teach. "Traditionally we've taught reading and writing in a very passive way: you sit, you write and you learn. For young boys, we need to do a lot more with multiple intelligences [allowing them to learn through movement or touch or other ways in which individuals may learn best].

"It's not that they're not capable. They're as capable, but the learning styles are different."

Durham's board has been a trendsetter in trying to come to grips with male underachievement. Last summer, it trained kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers in boy-friendly methods of reading instruction and researchers asked groups of boys for their opinions on reading. Based on the findings, the board urged teachers to read aloud from books filled with action and adventure.

Although all schools must develop action plans, they are not required to make them public. The schools are not asked to set specific targets for closing the gap. But they do list hoped-for signs of success: longer, more complex written assignments from boys; increased use of libraries by boys for recreational reading; more boys in academic after-school programs; more boys being celebrated for reading achievements.

Some schools in needy areas are involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Canada, which provides male mentors to boys and female mentors to girls for one hour a week. Several corporations, including the Royal Bank, which is a leading sponsor, allow their employees time off to participate.

The program is for "discouraged children" at risk of dropping out "either physically or emotionally," according to Sharlene Melnike, the executive director of Big Brothers Ajax-Pickering.

Rob Braid has been a mentor for three years to a young boy, beginning when the boy was six. "He was a little defiant," said the facilities manager for the Town of Ajax who, like all mentors, needed to pass a criminal-records check to join the program.

Mr. Braid takes the child out of class and plays basketball or hockey with him. "We've worked on three basic principles: respect yourself, respect other people, respect other people's stuff."

Mr. Braid does not focus on academics, but hopes it will be a byproduct of showing the boy that he is special. "These kids realize someone is giving time for them," he said.

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.