Perhaps boys CAN do well in school?

Boys start behind girls in elementary school, probably because of their slower verbal development. However, there are boys who do just as well as girls in the early years, so the question is whether those boys are somehow different from the rest, or is there some factor that encourages these boys to do well?

image of boys sitting on floor watching teacher who holds a book
image credit: Twin Cities Pioneer Press

A recent study, covered well in the New York Times Upshot by Claire Cain Miller, discovered that the typical gender gap seen in young children, with girls doing better than boys in elementary school, does not seem to exist for Asian-American boys.

The grades of these boys are keeping up with their female cohort and are not falling back until later in high school, when the Asian-American boys’ grades start to look more like their classmates. Even in high school, the stereotypically nerdy Asian male student excelling at science and math has been used to point out that boys can do well in school.

The question is this – how are Asian families raising their sons in a way that encourages the boys to do well early in school and, for the technologically inclined boys, to stay working hard well into graduate school?

Part of the answer is one of selection. Many of the Asians who immigrated to the US in the 60s and 70s were well educated professionals who looked at education as the way for their children to succeed in their new country. Simply being well educated is no guarantee of intelligence, but parents who have succeeded at education know what their children need to do to succeed in school, and will pass that knowledge along.

These parents also have educational expectations for their children that will lead to professional degrees – doctors, lawyers, engineers, and the like. I have taught some of the children and grandchildren of these immigrants, the pressure to do well in school so that the child can go to a top college and then to graduate school is tremendous.

Another factor, particularly in first generation children of Asian immigrants, is the belief held by these children that the child’s success reimburses the parents’ sacrifice in coming to a new country. Remember that these parents were professionals in their home countries and many, when they arrived in the US, had to start again at the bottom because of a lack of English language skills.

In the 70s and 80s, it was not unusual to hear of Asian immigrants working in menial jobs who were discovered to possess professional credentials. The point was that they didn’t mind cleaning offices as long as their children were able to go to an Ivy League university. Then, once those children succeeded, they were expected to take care of the parents who had made it all possible.

What was fascinating in this study was the finding that boys, who escaped the gender gap in elementary school, fell into it in high school. That was especially true for boys attending schools with a strong sports culture. The belief is that in adolescence, when boys are particularly responsive to the attitudes of their male peers, began to slow down in their academic pursuits because of a belief that either boys were not supposed to do well in school or that it was somehow “unmasculine” to do well in school.

That’s the central point that this study makes: that boys can do just as well as girls if they believe that they can. The problem, though, is that so much of what society and education puts forth about boys feeds the belief that boys don’t do as well as girls in school. As I’ve long said, it’s ridiculous that simply being male puts a child at risk for identification with learning disabilities. Why should a boy have any more trouble learning than a girl does?

The problem for boys in school is, I think, two-fold. The first is the belief by society that boys are not going to do well in school. That sets them up for failure from the first day they walk through a school door. This assumption is endorsed by the media, by parents, and most importantly, by teachers who see a wiggly little boy as a problem student.

The second part of this is the assumption that the way to learn is through language only. Education, as a discipline, assumes that the primary way to learn is through reading and writing and the child who is slightly behind, as many boys are, is doomed to failure.

I remember well an Asian-American student I was asked to tutor in biology. His older brother was a Ph.D. candidate in Physics at a major US technical university. His mother and father were doctors. He wanted to be a commercial artist and had the skills. He had failed biology once because he was uninterested in the subject and he was not willing to read the material.

When I tutored him, we dissected flowers, we went outside and looked at insects and animals, we developed charts and graphs of the material, and he excelled. Then the problem became that he did so well that his mother again began to dream of him going to medical school! The pressure from his parents to succeed was at least part of the reason he did poorly, because if he wasn’t seen as capable of doing that work, they backed off.

Boys can do well in elementary school, but if they are surrounded by messages that tell them that they cannot, they will not. Start early by reading to your child every day and keeping that up as long as he will let you. Then have him read to you. Make sure he knows that boys do well in school and if he has trouble, help him figure out how he does learn.

Then, when he enters adolescence, do what you can to encourage his friendship with other boys with an academic interest. I have known athletes who did well in school, but most of them were at boys’ schools where being good at both is expected.

Good luck!