Why Do Boys Suck at School?

By: hawkgrrrl
November 12, 2013

Look at that smart girl and her dumb brother!

For the last ten years, studies have consistently shown that boys are lagging behind girls in school.  This trend is not only an issue in the US, but also in the UK.  Boys are expelled – from preschool – at 5x the rate of girls!  Boys are more likely to have to repeat a grade, and more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD; two-thirds of students in special education are male. [1]  Adult males are almost twice as likely as females to move back home with mom and dad, a sobering thought to me as a mother of two boys.  [2] They get more Cs and Ds than girls.  They are more likely to drop out before graduation, and they can’t even get pregnant.  In the US, 55.7% of entering college students are now women, as many men have exited the academic track due to constant discouragement or poor grades, particularly among boys from less affluent families who don’t provide additional support to counteract the messages the boys are hearing from teachers.  An even higher percentage of women (57.4%) graduate with either an Associate’s degree or Bachelor’s degree. [3]

There are many causes theorized, but for whatever reason, the spiraling trend hasn’t been effectively addressed.  I’ll expound on a few of these theories (some of which interrelate) and talk about what we can do to address them.

Biology equals destiny

There is a strong belief that male and female brains differ, and that these differences explain why males do not excel in a school environment.  Have schools become intolerant of males or do boys need to adapt?

I did see them, especially for my younger boy, just a lot of intolerance for high spiritedness. He got in trouble once on a school trip just because he jumped up and touched an awning, and this child was incapable of walking by an awning and not jumping up and – I mean, little things in schools where they weren’t allowed to play tag and dodge ball. And I began to see they’d eliminated recess.

He was at a private Jewish day school and there was no recess, so he organized football games in during lunch and they were always arguing back and forth with the teachers about whether or not that was OK. And I was shocked and I think many parents don’t realize how little time there is now for physical activity in school.

Now, girls need recess and physical activity, but boys, it’s an absolute necessity.  - Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute. [3]

This need to couple classroom teaching with physical movement is surfacing in many studies.  It’s long been a foregone conclusion that girls mature faster than boys, but this doesn’t relate only to relationship skills, as shown in another study:

Research indicates that boys tend to develop certain functional skills later than girls: attributes like attentiveness, persistence, focus, independent action, and eagerness to learn. Boys tend to have higher energy levels and higher drive to engage in physical activity, neither of which is conducive to learning in a traditional classroom. [4]

They want me to do the homework AND turn it in? Unfair!

Another area that has hurt boys is the outlawing of boy “fantasy” play.  Boys like to engage in physical play (or video games) in which they are the active hero, fighting bad guys or rescuing others.  This type of play has been targeted in some schools and lumped together with bullying and intimidation, mistaking “action” for “aggression.”  Since the Columbine tragedy, schools have been so anti-weapon that any play involving pretend weapons qualifies as a violation of school policy.  In one instance, a 7-year old boy was suspended for chewing his pop tart into the shape of a gun. [5]

Girls School

Most teachers and even administrators of schools are female.  Men typically choose careers for more lucrative and competitive reasons than do women.  Women often want a job that they feel is meaningful or makes a difference, in some cases to justify their being out of the home (one reason women gravitate toward teaching and nursing), supports their family life through a balanced or flexible schedule, and helps them provide benefits to their kids.  Particularly for women who are not primary earners, teaching is an attractive field.  Historically, men are more likely to weigh pay more strongly when considering a career, and teaching is usually not lucrative enough to provide for a family without a secondary income.  Until we pay teachers enough (again) that it is a viable family income without supplement, we will continue to turn off many potential male teachers.

My first thought was that a majority of female teachers is not that new, but in retrospect, all my school administrators were male when I was in elementary, middle school, and high school.  More than a shift in teachers, a shift in how education is managed has occurred.  What else has changed is female access to higher education (college as an expected goal for women), and the support of families and academia toward female education.  My mother graduated high school in 1948.  She was her class salutatorian.  She did not go to college.  Instead she got a job in a secretarial pool taking dictation from her male bosses and typing up their correspondence until she got married.  She always wished she could have gone to college, but it was considered a waste of money to send girls.

Overall, it’s likely that girls have long behaved better than boys at school (and earned better grades as a result), but their early academic success was not enough to overcome significant subsequent disadvantages: families’ favoring sons over daughters in allocating scarce resources for schooling; cultural norms that de-emphasized girls’ education, particularly past high school; an industrial economy that did not require a college degree to earn a living wage; and persistent discrimination toward women in the workplace.

Those disadvantages have lessened since about the 1970s. [3]

The Hermione Model

Just because there are more females running schools and teaching in them, it doesn’t necessarily follow suit that the school environment favors girls or sets them up for success more than boys, right? [6]  Well, that may be true if there were only objective evaluations of our children, but of course their work and ability is also evaluated subjectively.  While this is more obvious in courses like writing and reading, it is even true in math and science where subjective elements such as organization, willingness to seek help from teachers, ability to discuss or negotiate grades, and doing routine tasks consistently like showing work and turning in rote assignments can make the difference in GPAs.

When the researchers broke down the data by gender, they found that in many cases, classroom grades (subjective measurements awarded by teachers) were not well aligned to test scores. Troublingly, they found that boys, who scored well on tests (indicating mastery of the material being taught) did not get grades from teachers that reflected their abilities in three central subjects: reading, math, and science.

In other words, teachers favored girls.

The researchers then looked at the teachers’ assessment of students’ behavior, which was collected on this group of kids as they moved through school. The researchers found that teachers depressed the grades of boys who they thought didn’t show an “aptitude for learning.” They depressed the grades of boys, not because they didn’t learn the material, but because they didn’t do school well—comport themselves in class more like, well, girls. When the teachers perceived that boys exhibited an “aptitude toward learning,” they graded them on par and sometimes slightly better than their female counterparts. [7]

Is this just another “blame the feminists” theory?  Not entirely, although there are a few who would make that argument.  Parents, including feminists, want both their girls and boys to succeed – neither at the expense of the other.

Girls Will Be Girls

School without recess = torture

Beyond that, as budgets are cut and ratios expand, does this create an environment even more hostile to male children, an environment where focused students are a necessity, where passive behavior is more desired, where compliance with rules and a desire to please the teacher is easier to manage, providing limited physical movement or even change in position throughout study time?  Additionally, we’ve eliminated recess in many schools and even cut back on PE requirements in middle and high school.  We’ve also eliminated “competition” in favor of “participation” in order to preserve fragile child self esteem, when studies show that boys are more motivated by competition; girls are often more motivated by complex social interactions and pressures, including cooperation, which not only still exist as ratios expand, but increase through more group projects designed to make larger groups of students more manageable.

We should celebrate that girls have made up lost ground (especially given the fact that a hundred years ago nobody cared that girls rarely went to college and were consistently outperformed by the boys in school).  But now we need some focus on helping the boys succeed as well.

As a parent, I have personally made the argument that if my fifteen year-old son thinks school is hard, he should try those behaviors in a job.  Those behaviors teachers dislike (missing deadlines, not asking for help, forgetfulness, lack of organization) won’t go over well with a boss.  My criticism is not unique:

As one critic told me recently, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy and unfocused workers. But unproductive workers are adults — not 5-year-olds. If boys are restless and unfocused, why not look for ways to help them do better? As a nation, can we afford not to?  A few decades ago, when we realized that girls languished behind boys in math and science, we mounted a concerted effort to give them more support, with significant success. Shouldn’t we do the same for boys?  [4]

If You Tell a Man He Can’t Fish . . . 

Will daily affirmations cure this problem?

We all know how the power of suggestion has historically hurt females’ academic results [8], causing many to shy away from the maths and sciences in the past.  However, current test results show that females have gained ground in those disciplines and are now on par with male students in math and science while not having lost any ground on reading and writing, areas females have always dominated.  Is the cause for this shift due to students’ self-perception and teachers’ belief that females are more intelligent in addition to being better behaved?  The following study revealed that bias.

In the first stage of the study researchers presented 238 boys and girls aged four to 10 with a range of scenarios related to behaviour or performance, such as “this child really wants to learn and do well at school”.  The children were asked to guess who the situation applied to by pointing to a silhouette of either a boy or a girl.

The results, published in the Child Development journal, showed that by the time girls are aged four and boys are seven, they equate girls with better behaviour and higher achievement at school. [9]

The stereotypical “good student” is now female, and this belief, when held by teachers and students results in more readiness to see success in female students that fit the stereotype than in males, who don’t.  In this view, boys are seen as defective girls.

Boys who were told they should expect lower marks performed worse in the test than those who were not given any information but girls’ marks were unaffected, suggesting stereotypes about male inferiority harm boys but do not help girls.

In contrast, when boys were told that they were expected to perform equally well as girls, their marks improved compared with those who were not given any expectations. Girls’ performance was again unaffected. [9]


Obviously, we don’t want to undo the good work we’ve done at improving female academic performance.  But there are a few things we could do to address these issues:

  • Improve education funding.  Currently, 2 cents from every federal tax dollar goes toward education.  That’s a pretty abysmal amount.  19 cents go toward defense spending.  Personally, I’d be willing to pay more taxes to improve education and pay for teachers.  The funding cuts are what is causing schools to cut recess, increase class sizes, and eliminate physical activity from being a routine part of the school day.
    • Improve teacher pay.  Make these jobs viable for primary earners; not only will more men join the ranks of teachers, but women will be better compensated, and competition for these jobs will improve teacher performance.  Perhaps some affirmative action to ensure males (and minorities) are adequately represented in the teaching and administration ranks would be helpful.
    • Reduce ratios to reasonable levels.  When we moved to Singapore in 2011, our Arizona school operated with 1:26 in the classroom.  Now that we have returned, they are at 1:38.  That’s a huge change in two and a half years.
    • Reinstate recess and PE.  In addition to improving all students’ attentiveness through more variety during the day, this would help curb the obesity epidemic.
    • Handle special needs.  Schools generally are not equipped to deal with anyone who is outside the average, at either end of the spectrum.  Many schools will choose one need that is most prevalent in their school district, such as ESL (English as Second Language) and not address other needs such as gifted, ADHD, autism, Asperger’s or other outlier groups.  I leave this to the psychologists to study and recommend, but the trend for the last ten years has been to mainstream all special needs and even gifted or non-English speaking children.  There are some good reasons to do this, but there are also some negative outcomes in terms of teacher support and attention to the students, especially with burgeoning ratios.  There is probably a happy medium that could be achieved with more funding so that ALL students who have special needs are given a better environment to succeed.
  • Set goals for male improvement.  Boys have been lagging in reading and writing for a long time, but rather than addressing this skill gap, some are proposing further cuts to humanities education.  I suggest federally mandated and tested achievement goals for both girls and boys in all basic disciplines.  Even if this leads to teachers cooking the results, as federal mandates often do, it will at least change the teachers’ mindsets toward male students.
  • Weight test results more than homework.  Male students consistently struggle with organization and asking for help more than females, but when test scores are viewed objectively, their results are on par (unlike the grades they receive).  Reduce the ability of subjective teacher input to discourage boys by letting good test scores trump bad homework scores, at least before junior or senior years of high school.
  • Shift ages for school entry.  Perhaps if we had different age cutoffs for school entry, we would have better results among the boys.  We found with our daughter that skipping a grade was not a problem, whereas her brother who is just early for his grade struggles with the types of issues identified above.  Perhaps an extra six months of maturity would help boys.  It’s rather the opposite of what the church has done with mission ages, but think about it.  Who is more mature: an 18 year old boy or an 18 year old girl?
  • Use video games to teach.  Boys consistently spend more than twice as many hours per week playing video games than girls.  Why not redirect some of this fantasy play toward academic aims?  RPGs can provide opportunities to build whatever skills we put into them.

What ideas do you have to address the gap?  Are you concerned about it?  What are your experiences with it?



[1] http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archives/22-stats-that-prove-that-there-is-something-seriously-wrong-with-young-men-in-america

[2] http://money.cnn.com/2011/11/04/pf/young_adults/index.htm?iid=HP_LN.  19% of males age 25-34 live at home with parents vs. 10% of females this age.

[3] http://www.npr.org/2013/02/12/171806323/boys-are-at-the-back-of-the-class

[4]  http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/02/the-boys-at-the-back/

[5] http://elitedaily.com/news/world/7yearold-boy-suspended-school-gunshaped-pop-tart/

[6] After all, the LDS church is run by men, but they think women are “incredible” and morally superior to their porn-addicted, depraved husbands.

[7] http://news.yahoo.com/time-worry-boys-rapidly-falling-behind-girls-school-194100724.html

[8] Some of you may remember the Teen Talk Barbie with rotating phrases, one of which was “Math class is tough!”  Now that Barbie says, “Deciding what to wear to accept my Nobel Peace Prize is hard!”

[9]  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9862473/Boys-worse-at-school-due-to-stereotypes.html


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18 Responses to Why Do Boys Suck at School?

  1. ji on November 12, 2013 at 4:43 AM

    I don’t have an answer, but I appreciate your insights. I tend to agree that boys aren’t well-served in school — especially a school with no recess and an overly-rigid prohibition in making poptarts into play guns — another problem is interpreting private boy art (boys make drawings, you know) as violent and predictive and grounds for expulsion.

    In a church setting, maybe we do a little better. We have separate space for boys and men, and activities. Not to harm the girls, of course, but to help the boys.

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  2. larryco_ on November 12, 2013 at 5:48 AM

    I, personally, think that male role models who value education and find learning an exciting adventure can have a positive effect on their sons. My wife and I never viewed education as something that happened outside of the home. It was only supplemented by what took place there. Along with many hours playing catch in the back yard and doing scouting projects, my son and I – from a very young age – were involved in educational pursuits. At age four, for example, he and I watched all the episodes of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, where he was seriously wrapped in wonder. He was always more likely to catch his father and mother reading books than watching TV, and began reading himself (real reading, not the rote learning type of reading) at age 3.

    So, how did this young man end up? As a 16 year-old junior in a typical Granite School District high school, he scored a perfect 36 on his ACT (only 64 out of the million-plus who took the test that year achieved that score), and currently has a wonderful family and his dream job as a computer programmer for a major corporation.

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  3. nate on November 12, 2013 at 7:46 AM

    Do you think separate boys and girls schools would help?

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  4. hawkgrrrl on November 12, 2013 at 8:17 AM

    nate – that’s an interesting question that is debated partly because of the UK. I think there may be some benefit during some ages, but separate often creates separate results rather than equal opportunity if it’s the rule rather than the exception. I think it’s probably too difficult also in the US public school system to fully segregate learning because it would require twice as many teachers. But there are probably some ways to use segregation to improve results.

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  5. Will on November 12, 2013 at 9:15 AM


    Boys are way gooder at school

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  6. The Other Clark on November 12, 2013 at 9:40 AM

    Great post. I suspect that the biggest impact would come from lowering the teacher/student ratio to no more than 1:20.
    Two additional suggestions not mentioned in the OP:
    1) School vouchers would allow parents to select a school with an educational philosophy that meets their needs. The invisible hand of competition would find a solution to these issues. Even the option to choose between various local public schools would be a start in the right direction.
    2) I understand today is a liability-centered, sue-happy culture, but the restrictions on boyness need to be eliminated. When snowball throwing, pointing your finger and saying bang, drawing a picture of any weapon or even the concept of competition are grounds for expulsion, it;s no wonder boys feel stifled.

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  7. Phil on November 12, 2013 at 10:44 AM

    The title of your post is disrespectful.

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  8. Jon on November 12, 2013 at 11:55 AM

    Could you have titled the post something like
    Why are boys not doing well in school?

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  9. hawkgrrrl on November 12, 2013 at 12:00 PM

    Phil – Disrespectful of whom or what? “Suck” is vernacular for doing poorly at something. Kids say it all the time, and this is an article about kids.
    Jon – Sure. But I didn’t. Who cares? This is how my teen boys would say it.

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  10. Will on November 12, 2013 at 12:11 PM



    Like a good writer, she caught your attention. The term “sucks” only sucks if you look at it from a pious perspective. If you just take it as intended, it simply means bad.

    Gay and colored were respectful terms in the 1950′s

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  11. Hedgehog on November 12, 2013 at 2:03 PM

    For a UK perspective, back when my parents went to school, genders were segregated from 11 years old, but schools were also assigned by ability via the 11+ exam. My Mum did much better than my Dad, academically. When I was at school the 11+ exam had been abandoned in my county, in favour of comprehensive education and school catchment areas, and whilst the school I joined at age 11 was then a girls school, it amalgamted with the adjacent boys school the following year. Comprehensive education certainly had its downsides for bright students, and the fall in social mobility has in part been linked to the loss of grammar schools by some. Middle class parents would move into the catchment areas of the schools they wanted their children to attend, which would in turn push up house prices. Roll on to my own children, and parental choice of school has been the big thing. Parents were no longer confined to catchment areas dictated according to their addresses. And educated, middle class parents were the ones to learn to play the system. The schools with the better behaved students attract the better teachers, and further attract the better students.

    There is a majority of female teachers in our primary schools, though in the junior years (7-10) there have been a few male teachers at the schools my children have attended, and in one case, a male head-teacher. and I don’t think there is lack of male staff-members in our secondary schools (11 and over). Perhaps our teachers are better paid. There have been moves to give schools more control over budgets to raise pay to attract staff. And the most recent thing is the advent of ‘free’ schools – which are schools groups of people can decide to set up for themselves and apply for government funding. Some parent groups have done that.

    As for differences between boys and girls, in this country the whole atmosphere in primary schools is very different. There are far more distractions around the classroom than I remember there being when I was in school, in terms of displays on the wall, objects displayed on tables, and such like, that can make it hard to concentrate for some children. The schools my children have attended all have break and lunch times, and at primary school the children were expected to be outside, bad weather excepting, and there was level ample space to run around in, and boys were not prevented from playing football (soccer). At the secondary school there is less space, but the boys are still permitted to play football at break and lunch times, though the students are also allowed inside as well. The school gets good results for all students. Some secondary schools in the area have cut breaktimes, and appear to be designed such that the students will spend their time indoors.

    My younger child’s year was particularly small, so that at primary school they did benefit from being in a class of under 20 children, which meant they did get more attention. And this was in a period when the government insisted on regulating class sizes to no more than 30. That’s not enforced so much in primary schools now because of the pressure on places because of the increased bithrate Britain is experiencing. My older child has an ASD diagnosis and is in mainstream school, they requires support to deal with social aspects of school, in-class interaction, managing stress and OCD behaviours etc. Parents tend to have to fight for support, so being articulate and able to find your way around the system as a parent, is a huge advantage when looking at outcomes for the child. There is a bill going through parliament now that looks to integrate support for health, education and social care for all children with disabilities that will mean a some changes in the way children are supported at school in the future.

    One thing that is discussed is the age at which our children start school. Four years old. And that’s very young compared to Europe. This gets lots of debate. Should we start school later, and allow more play than we do? Are we expecting them to sit and concentrate for too long to soon. Are girls better able to deal with this? One member of the government recently made the rather controversial suggestion that children should start formal education at age two (the mind boggles), because some children from poorer (read non-middle class) were arriving in school never having read a book, or never having had to concentrate on a simple puzzle etc., and starting school earlier would allow them to experience these things earlier.

    It’s also my experience that schools in this country do take advantage of online games that are provided by education companies, for different subjects, and students are able to access these games in school, and are given passwords they can use to participate when at home too. Though this presumes the home has internet access, and that’s not universal.

    Sorry, long comment.

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  12. el oso on November 12, 2013 at 6:46 PM

    Great post and analysis. My son is the biggest kid in his class, but not the worst actor, but is frequently singled out for discipline. I think that his potential to harm others due to his size is a factor in the teacher’s decision to segregate him. I notice that one teacher who has 4 sons has not seen him as a big problem. She knows that ‘boys will be boys’ and lets a lot of ‘activity’ pass.

    Is the fact that a much smaller percentage of current teachers than before been in a family with multiple boys a contributor to the problem. Even teachers who have multiple sons are usually older than 30+ years ago and that reduces the total exposure to this phenomenon outside of the classroom.

    I also think that this would be addressed by wider school choice. Schools that provided good training in dealing with boys (or just hired better teachers) would quickly demonstrate competency in teaching boys and get lots of customers. Many more would follow suit. Even current public schools could look at gross measures like the spread between the grades and test scores of boys and girls in their classes and provide training to the teachers who showed the big difference.

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  13. hawkgrrrl on November 12, 2013 at 7:06 PM

    el oso: “Is the fact that a much smaller percentage of current teachers than before been in a family with multiple boys a contributor to the problem.” Very interesting question. It’s possible that smaller family sizes have contributed to teachers’ intolerance for groups of boys and their boyish behavior.

    Hedgehog: Thanks for sharing the differences and issues experienced in the UK. That is helpful. Some of the studies are articles I linked are actually from the UK, so this is apparently considered to be a serious issue there as well. There are probably things both nations can learn from the others’ systems.

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  14. hawkgrrrl on November 12, 2013 at 7:10 PM

    Oh, and Will – gracias! ;)

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  15. Hedgehog on November 13, 2013 at 2:30 AM

    One thing to add regarding examinations. Back when I and my parents took examinations at school, grades were awarded almost solely on the basis of examination results at the end of a 2 year course of study. For the last couple of decades there has been a very large coursework element for most subjects (believed better suited to girls), and exams have been on a more modular basis throughout the two years. They are this year going back to the old system of exams at the end of the two year course, and in many cases getting rid of the coursework element. It will be interesting to see whether that makes a difference in the balance of success between girls and boys.

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  16. Will on November 13, 2013 at 9:23 AM


    I was out of town and only had access to my Iphone, so all you really got were my smart-allec comments.

    I had a chance to read your post in more depth on the plane ride home. I agree with your identification of the problem, but you are wrong on the solution. In short, we have a complete ussification of our boys – they are being coddled and as a result are migrating to fantasy instead of reality. I think you have touched on one of the greatest challenges of our day.
    With the integration almost all female administrations and staff in our school system (among other things), we have become too nurturing, provide too much conflict avoidance, provide too much assistance, provide too much one on one attention, do way too many things for these kids that they can and should be doing for themselves. This is augmented by free time becoming fantasy time – video games, pornography, television, facebook and twitter. This has destroyed our boys. Along with the over consumption of simple carbohydrates (that often go along with these tasks), they are fully engaged in the 7 deadly sins.

    Speaking metaphorically, these kids (especially boys) need to be given a plastic diaper just after they learn to crawl and be thrown into the pool to fend for themselves. They need to learn to fight their own battles. They need to find their own way to school. They need to figure out their home work. They need to figure out (without school interference) how to deal with the bully. They need to figure out how to fix a failing grade without a parent stepping in to fix it. About 14, they need to start paying for their own clothes and contributing to school lunch. At sixteen, they need to pay for their own car and their own gas and their own insurance. They need to save for their mission and college. If they follow this pattern, they will be ready for the world. If they do not, they will be a perpetual unemployed student (which is just another fantasy world) living with mommy.

    The LAST thing we need is more funding; more one on one attention; more coddling. What is needed is more virtue and character obtained from more DOING; and less pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony and sloth stemming from being coddled.

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  17. PaulM on November 13, 2013 at 2:07 PM


    I’m a bit surprised by some of your recommendations because your posts are typically well-researched but scant evidence exists to support their efficacy. In fact, there’s plenty of hard evidence to suggest that some of your propositions will have zero impact.

    Re Improve Funding: There are literally dozens of studies out there that demonstrate that increased funding does not improve outcomes. Below is just one of those studies. In the book “Freakonomics” Levitt and Dubner conspicuously omit spending per pupil from their discussion. That was not because Levitt did not evaluate the variable (he did in the paper published) but because, again, funding, per se, did not correlate with performance. Levitt and Dubner did discuss two “funding related” variables: socio-economic status and relocation to a “better” neighborhood. The data indicate that socio-economic status does impact a child’s performance but that moving to a better neighborhood does not. The problem with using socio-economic status is that it is also highly correlated with a few other factors identified by Levitt as affecting academic outcomes—namely education level of parents, age of mother’s first birth, and English as the first language in the home. Basically, socio-economic status can largely be explained as a function of those three other variables so it doesn’t provide much insight into the impact of funding on outcomes. More telling is that even if families leave “poor” neighborhoods for “better” ones (i.e. wealthier) their children’s performance does not improve.


    Re Improve Teacher Pay: The study cited below clearly indicates that teacher pay does not need improving. For those too lazy/busy to follow the link and read the entire study the most important bullets regarding teacher pay are:

    1) Workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent. Teachers who change to non-teaching jobs, on the other hand, see their wages decrease by roughly 3 percent. This is the opposite of what one would expect if teachers were underpaid.

    2) Public-school teacher salaries are comparable to those paid to similarly skilled private sector workers, but more generous fringe benefits for public-school teachers, including greater job security, make total compensation 52 percent greater than fair market levels


    What I found most troubling about the research referenced above is their discussion of the cognitive ability of the average teacher compared to professionals with similar levels of education. Basically, the average teacher performs below average on cognitive tests and they are responsible for “educating” our children. Would higher wages necessarily attract the more cognitively elite? Perhaps but not necessarily. What teaching needs is a more rigorous licensing regime. I work in finance and I can speak from experience that the CPA exam and the CFA exam do an excellent job of weeding out the cognitively “below-average”. Those are two very difficult exams—especially for those located on the meaty part of the intelligence bell curve. The result is that those who carry those certifications/licenses are able to command higher wages (and personally, I pay those happily). I have a feeling that lawyers and doctors share my experience (I know plenty of each who could best be described as average but none who I would call below average). Make getting a teaching license difficult and you will drive up demand and wages.

    Re Reduce Class Size: There are plenty of studies on this as well and the results are mixed. Most telling though is that several studies have determined that class size produces results associated with an inverted logarithmic curve which translates to a rapidly diminishing marginal return for reducing class size. While reducing class size from 20 to 10 does tend to produce improved grades (not necessarily improved performance) increasing class size from 20 to 30 has almost zero impact on student grades. In fact, the grade difference between 20 and 50 is nearly imperceptible. I would provide a link but the only legitimate studies I could find were to pay sites that don’t let you link.

    Re Weighting Tests: I like the idea in theory but am concerned with the practical results. I have a teenage son who I charitably describe as a functioning illiterate. I reviewed a civics paper of his a few nights ago and was appalled with the number and nature of grammatical errors and the complete lack of organization and coherence. Yet, through a year and a half of high school at one of the best schools in the entire country he has earned straight “A”s. His school district has a policy that at least 80% of all grades are based on objective measures (tests) so he does just fine. I’m not sure measuring his academic performance based on his ability to recall facts and figures and fill in a bubble is actually serving him and society well.

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  18. hawkgrrrl on November 13, 2013 at 4:13 PM

    PaulM: I agree with your key points: 1) just throwing money at it doesn’t help – and unfortunately, govt tends to do this when they aren’t taking the money away and throwing it at something else. It needs to be spent intelligently, based on good research, 2) today’s teachers – AND administrators – are the ones who are perpetuating this problem, and so when I say pay teachers more, I primarily mean use better salaries to attract better teachers and better administrators and to attract both men and women. I do like the idea of more weeding out and rigor, although historically the govt has done a poor job cracking down on those who game teacher evaluation processes, and there are many many ways to game them. Right now, the poor pay is weeding out some who would be superior teachers but who will seek their fortunes elsewhere because teaching doesn’t pay the bills.

    The information about class sizes not having an impact are new to me. I am familiar with (and agree with) the information about family support being a critical factor (pointed out in Freakonomics). IOW, just because going to college correlates with higher salaries, that doesn’t mean you can send someone to college who would normally be a blue collar worker and expect them to automatically meet those WASPish norms. All of these studies point out the real problem: that cause is conflated with correlation, and there are many factors.

    I do see an issue with teacher evaluations that are subjective or are based on busy-work (repetitive homework) rather than quality of thinking or output. Those evaluation techniques seem to favor the girls who are more organized, more willing to talk to the teacher, and more people-pleasing on the whole. But I agree with your comments about the standards being simply too low.

    Having said that, other nations have their own host of problems. For example, in China, you can pay someone to fill in your applications to colleges and not even be able to hold your own in conversational English. Money covers a multitude of sins there as elsewhere.

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