The Boy Problem: Noise Obfuscation of True Problems

While a bunch of us were chatting, our administrator noted how all of the discipline cases he is dealing with are boys.  He then noted how most of our failing students are also boys, and that most of our top students are girls.  Not alone in this observation, he pondered what is perennially proposed: A different program for boys than girls.

Bad idea.

The problem of using gender to model programs is that it offers no path to a solution, except if the problem is gender discrimination.

In the data world they call this issue “the signal in the noise.”  9780143125082The signal is the problem–behavior and academic achievement–while classifications (gender, race, age) are the noise.  We identify the boy problem because gender is an easy way to categorize people.  We notice it.  Evolutionary, we are built to recognize patterns as a means of survival.  But our intuition can cause us to fall to, create and reinforce stereotypes.  We create more noise, and lose the signal.  Every stereotype has some truth at its core, but it ultimately binds the person it is being done to–we put the person in a box.  And, it makes others blind to the real problem and its solution.

To say that our school does not serve boys is to say that there is only one way to be a boy.  It’s a box we put people in.  For the sake of argument, let’s use the stereotype that “boys need movement.”  And let’s say that 80% of boys need movement.  That leaves us missing 20%.  And if the needs are reversed for girls–only 20% need movement–that leaves that group missing out, too   Everyone is in a box.

Instead, we might build a program around students needing movement, and another program(s) around something else.  Now, those student who need it (half) get movement.  That 20% of non-movement boys are now free to pursue their needs, along with 80% of the girls.  Win-win.

We track gender, race, SES and the like for two reasons.  First, some elements of an identified group we can address–SES kids, by definition, need to be fed. But that use is limited. Second, we identify groups because some have been discriminated against, historically.  That was the reason NCLB required those designations.  When a group comes up short, this provides a place for schools to start the conversation–is the cause discrimination?

After that has been answered in the negative (hopefully) the use of such designations should then move to characteristics of the individual students in question and their needs.  Why are these students getting into trouble?  How large an issue is that, and how can it be addressed?  In looking back at NCLB the one area that using the data made a big difference was with SES students.  Interestingly, the solution was like the 80:20 above–many needed something the school was not providing (but not all), and some non-SES students benefited from those same programs.  Win-win.  It was not because of discrimination, but in starting there schools took a fresh look at a problem and identified the true root cause.  Focusing on gender instead places the needs of some on the larger demographic while excluding others–it is not an efficient solution and can create new problems.

So what is our school’s problem?  We are too indulgent.  In our desire to provide to students what they need to succeed we have failed to hold them accountable.  We take off limits but do not demand responsibility as part of the bargain.  For example, I allowed music last fall because students benefited as it canceled out distracting noise.  Now, it is the distraction.  And music has creeped into other activities and classrooms.  Snacks have become meals.  Fidgets have become toys.  Water and bathroom breaks are a right.  In the end, I should have a product.  Not always.  In opening the barn door first I have now set up my enforcement of academics as conflict, not an inspired goal.  Too often, the work reflects this shift in tone from support to scold.  The exception is the rule.  We indulge.

We have reached the tipping point: As we approach 20% of students being an exception, the exception becomes the rule.  When music left the classroom, using during essay writing only, it became an exception.  As 20% of classrooms had exceptions (hats, music, no lines, snacks) it becomes harder to hold to the rule.

There are two fixes for this.  The first is to hold the rule.  No hats.  No music.  Lines.  The second is to add responsibility and accountability to the privilege.  Currently, we ask nothing in return for privilege.  Why?  Because monitoring it is difficult and it sets up conflict.  But that’s exactly how we creep towards the tipping point–we let those with the least amount of respect for others redefine the rule.  When those 20% change expectations the number of rules pushed grow and the number of students breaking them grows, too.

Those kids are defending by packs of adults, all justifying why they need it and apologizing for transgressions.  It’s not the exception that is the problem, but the transgression and accountability.  We are starting with an assumption that this thing bestowed–music, gum, movement–is a right to be taken away, not a privilege to be earned.  This is the exact opposite of how the adult world works–the most responsible gets the privileges while those lacking control either get few rewards or confinement.  And we excuse them in academics, too, for the same reasons.  We are doing these kids a disservice.

All of this is hard.  You can’t penalize a kid for the lack of structure provided up until the moment they cross a line.  The Responsive and Developmental Design programs offer those systems and protocols, but they require time and commitment from the group.

I would argue that it appears boys are the problem because success involves awareness and impulse control.  Boys seem to have more of a problem with this, but they are not alone.  Because society excuses much of it based on stereotypes (“boys will be boys” and “you can’t expect a boy to sit for an hour”) they hear that and internalize it.  When we lean on punishment, though, we are teaching students not to be caught.  Our data does not account for those who appear to follow rules but who skate the line constantly–take a census of how many are not where most of their peers are, or doing outlier behaviors, and you’ll find “they have permission.”  Plus, we have behaviors that are more personal, and do not affect others.  Even with academics, Tier II is filled with those who flail openly and dramatically.  When we stop looking at the major behavior data, but instead account for minor behaviors and any deviations from the rule, a true picture of our ailments become clear.  The solution is not movement but accountability to norms and earned privilege.

This Wall Street Journal article is a nice summing-up of the balance between challenge and aspiration.

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