Boy-friendly Schools?

So let’s talk about accountability and cooperativeness.  They’re good, right?  So if you built a set of institutions to teach little boys and little girls to be accountable and cooperative, that would be a step in the right direction.

This is a hard question; I am not going to pretend it is easy.  But consider: “independence” is good, too, and there is no way to reconcile independence with accountability.  Whoever you are accountable to is who you are not independent from.

That may seem obvious when put in that light, but it wasn’t obvious to any of the players in the story I am about to tell.  My first non-seasonal employment by the State of Oregon was by an agency called, at that time, the Oregon Educational Coordinating Commission (OECC).  We were created to serve the state by proposing statewide educational plans and to serve the legislature by advising them and, to a certain extent, doing studies that showed that what they wanted to do was a good idea.  We were, so the stories say, the legislators’ fair-haired boy.

By the time I arrived on the scene, we had lost a good deal of our popularity with the legislators and were very vulnerable to attack by agencies who would do better on their own programs if we were not there.  I didn’t see that we really had any weaknesses.  We were created to be an independent agency and were to be protected in that status by a legislature whose interests we served.

These hostile agencies, however, noticed something I had not.  They noticed that the newer legislators had not been party to the old understanding and were not eager to offer the OECC their protection.  This opened the door for an attack that led with this question, “Who are they (the OECC) accountable to?”  We didn’t catch the changed climate as fast as our opponents had, so we countered, “We are not supposed to be accountable; we are independent.”  It didn’t work and that’s how I learned that “accountable” and “independent” are mutually exclusive.

In the same way, cooperativeness is a good idea.  It is a good character trait, as anyone knows who has had to deal with uncooperative elementary and secondary students, and it is necessary if we are all going to get along with each other.  The Farmers and the Cowboys should be friends, after all.  Territory folks should stick together.  Territory folks should all be pals.

But, cooperativeness isn’t always a good idea and it is a better idea for some kinds of people that for others.  It is better for some kinds of tasks than for others.  Cooperativeness is “nicer,” of course, but “nice” doesn’t always get the job done and sometimes the job really needs to get done.  There are times, in summary, when you really need to stand with your own judgment rather than be accountable to others and there are times when you need to win, even though that requires that someone else lose.

David Brooks wrote about this dilemma in the New York Times on July 5. Here is the full column.  I think he and I might have some differences about definitions, but I am quite sure that he is right about the effect of the current school practices on boys.  From the torrent of lament about the declining ability of male students, this one was particularly startling: 11th-grade boys are now writing at the same level as 8th-grade girls.  Here is the challenge Brooks lays down.

Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.

It’s hard to be against “diversity,” isn’t it?  On the other hand, look at the sets of opposed values.  There’s cooperation v. competition.  That’s just a matter of definition if we are talking about persons, rather than groups.  Then there’s environmental virtues v. military virtues.  Who in the world thinks those are alternatives?  Then sharing v. winning and losing.  And finally, friendship circles v. boot camp.

Let’s divide those sets of terms so that we have “first term” values and “second term” values.  The first term values are cooperation, environmental virtues, sharing, and friendship circles. The second term values are competitiveness, military virtues, winning/losing, and boot camp. When I was in school, I was a boy (still am) and was much more comfortable with the first term in those sets than with the second term (still am).  So Brooks isn’t talking about all boys, but let’s give him a pass on the generality that “most boys” would benefit from the second term virtues

I taught in public schools for six years and I know a good deal more about faculty relations than Brooks does and I want to know how the first term teachers—cooperative, environmental, sharing, friendship circles—are going to relate to the second term teachers.  Abrupt and devastating moral condemnation, I would guess.  And you know how the second term teachers—the competitive, military, winning and losing, boot camp teachers—are going to respond.  Utter disdain would be my guess.

Now let’s look at it from the standpoint of the principal.  Every change-oriented principal I have ever known or heard of begins by telling the faculty what his or her vision is for “the new culture of the school” and for the “student outcomes” that are to be expected if everyone signs on.  Not everyone signs on.  The principal then sits down with the ones who won’t go along and tells them to start looking for a more compatible school, generally promising a very favorable recommendation if the search starts soon enough.

This new school culture will not be a mixture of the virtues Brooks has described.  The culture will choose what norms are good, what deviations from those norms are understandable in the short term, and which ones need to be condemned at every appearance.  That tells the teachers not only what to ask from the students, but how to respond to teachers who are emphasizing incompatible virtues.  It tells the cooperative teachers, in other words, how to nullify the major values of the teachers who emphasize military virtues.

Of course, everyone is in favor of “diversity,” but to a cooperative teacher, a boot camp cut throat, “winning is the only thing” teacher is a travesty and a disgrace.  Such a teacher is “too much diversity” or “the wrong kind of diversity” or something.  If school culture is set at the top, and it is, then “one culture schools” are what we will get.

Brooks doesn’t argue that we should have programs that are good for boys but not for girls.  He sees that the programs we have are better for girls and thinks there should be little enclaves of “boy friendly” teachers and curriculum.  I regret to say that the schools we now have are not “enclave friendly” and back when they were, it was because no one exercised any significant oversight of the faculty

Brooks’s one chance, and he doesn’t take it in this column, is to argue that the current arrangements are not good for girls either.  He needs to say that both boys and girls will be benefited by moving the school culture back in the direction a little more toughness.[1]  I would love to see the research on schools that have tried that.  I have never seen any and I don’t expect to.


[1] More like the way “school” is during recess.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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One Response to Boy-friendly Schools?

  1. Melisa says:

    I am not even living in the US right now, but it seems that there is much more testing than teaching and learning which I don’t think is good for anyone. How can you learn anything when you are always being tested or getting ready for a test…Also I think the more academic schools are at a earlier age (kindergarten) you lose more boys. Konrad (5 year old boy) is much more interested in telling stories and analyzing how things are made than sitting down and drawing pictures of people and writing…Of course kicking balls, climbing, running, etc. are also high on his list.
    I am more in the camp that believes children have an inner desire to learn and they need people to foster and facilitates that learning rather than tell them what they need to learn and when they need to learn it…Some children are ready for math before writing and others vice versa…but many schools are not flexible in this aspect. I think it would be interesting to see if boys would thrive in an academic environment that was flexible to their learning speed/style…Why wouldn’t Brooks advocate for this, before assuming competition and military style…My other point would be one that Sir Ken Robinson makes…the current school system is does not educate people aptly for what today’s world…

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