National Post

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

Tailoring schools to encourage males may cause backlash

Anne Marie Owens
National Post

Making schools more boy-friendly will not come without a backlash, say leading boys' educators.

At an international conference on educating boys last week, panelists and participants suggested schools need to overhaul everything from teaching methods to the structure of the school day in order to halt the learning lag among boys.

Rita Zanatta, an equity consultant for a Toronto-area school board, listened to the suggestions with a combination of interest and wariness.

She understands the need to proceed cautiously in this controversial territory: She came under attack for the views of one of the speakers at a Boys' Achievement Conference she arranged earlier this year, and is still trying to untangle some concerns over plans to set up single-sex classes in some schools.

"You are not going to get widespread agreement out there," says Ms. Zanatta, of the York Catholic District School Board. "Not everyone thinks this is an issue."

She equates it to the resistance similar girl-empowering programs encountered when they were first implemented in schools 20 years ago.

"Back then, we were doing math and science classes for girls and we had all kinds of different programs to boost girls' achievement. That kind of stuff was very controversial at the time. Now, it's pretty much accepted," she said.

Ms. Zanatta was just one of many public school educators who attended the International Boys' Schools Coalition conference in New York last week hoping to mine some ideas from those who have been in the business of educating boys for some time.

Chris Wadsworth, the executive director of the international coalition, says attendance at the annual meeting was larger than usual this year, in part because, for the first time, a significant number of participants were from coed schools.

"For years, the drive for equity overshadowed a lot of these pedagogical issues [about the differences between boys and girls.] Now, the climate seems to be right to say, 'Let's try to sort out these issues, " Mr. Wadsworth said.

In the United States, there has been a flurry of interest in setting up single-sex classes in response to the federal government's removal of a long-standing legal impediment to boys-only and girls-only programs in public schools.

Mr. Wadsworth says that decision is significant in a culture where it is ingrained "that you cannot be separate but equal; where if you are separate, you must not be equal."

These kinds of single-sex programs are being experimented with in schools throughout North America and in Australia and Britain, particularly in the wake of international statistics that increasingly point to the poor performance of boys in schools. Boys are being outperformed by girls across all grade levels, particularly in reading; they are much more likely to be enrolled in special education programs and diagnosed with attention deficit disorders; and they make up the vast majority of discipline problems in schools.

The book display at the New York conference is an indicator of the interest in the topic: Two walls of a room were filled with all manner of pop psychology and parenting books with titles such as Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys; and Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them.

Among the dozens of workshop topics at the conference were sessions called, "Boys Helping Boys Stand Taller," "Teaching Ethics to Boys," "Why Boys Don't Talk and Why We Care," and the two Canadian presentations, "Preparing Boys to Do Good and Do Well" and "Raising Boys' Achievement."

For Ms. Zanatta, it was a refreshing change to talk about boys' achievement to a like-minded audience. In the past year, she has had to defend herself against parents and teachers who opposed a plan to experiment with same-sex classes, and against educators and other critics who objected to her conference.

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