Outcomes by gender, race, and income level
By Sammis White, Ph.D.
In the last year numerous headlines have appeared in the news media that suggest a large gender problem exists in our schools. The New York Times said: “Boys are No Match for Girls in Completing High School.” Another from the Times: Dire Problems for Young Black Men, Several New Academic Studies Warn.” Locally, the Journal Sentinel featured a story that “Boys learn differently from girls, studies say.” And last July in the results of a national study Wisconsin fared worst in the nation in what was termed the state Education Inequality Index, the difference between graduation rates of black males and white males. The gap in Wisconsin was 47 points, the difference between a graduation rate of 38% for black males and 84% for white males across the state.
There is also a growing literature that bemoans the treatment boys are receiving in education today. The claim is that males learn differently and that those differences work against them in schools that teach to the girls’ way of learning. They cite evidence of higher grades, higher high school graduation rates of girls, higher rates of college attendance among young women, and higher grades in college. Boys, these critics complain, are getting the short end of the stick.
On the other hand, another group claims that the issue is that girls are finally being given the education that they deserve and that both sexes are doing better overall. One only need to note that the majority of college students today are women to know that girls are finally competing well with boys, at least on many indicators.
But even those who argue that females are only beginning to equal males realize that certain males— minority and low-income— are not doing well. These defenders of girls’ achievements admit that “academic performance for minority boys is often shockingly low.”8 This is certainly the case in Milwaukee where minority test scores and graduation rates are significantly behind those of white students in the district and even further behind those of white students in the rest of the state.
Milwaukee Public Schools’ (MPS) test scores have not been rising for several years, despite a host of initiatives (Figure 1). The district has seen an increase in the proportion of low-income students, so holding scores steady may be an accomplishment, modest though it may be. But stability in scores is not enough. There are numerous compelling reasons why achievement levels must rise. A recent report on MPS reveals that outside reviewers see MPS as far too complacent with its non-gains.9 The reviewers insist that more pressure be placed on MPS for gains in student achievement.
Pressure alone is not sufficient. We need a better understanding of what factors may be most influential in the low scores that have been commonplace in MPS. The new report cites the decentralization of authority as a contributor to no steady gains. MPS administration is now trying to reverse that (re-centralize), so that it can have a greater role in curriculum and budget decisions, among other points. But few view management style as the determining factor in educational outcomes.
A factor, however, that may be playing a role is the failure to teach in ways that helps the majority of males achieve at higher levels. According to one source, African-American males in MPS, for example, have a graduation rate of about 31%, and Hispanic males have an estimated graduation rate of 36%.10 The white male rate of graduation from MPS is estimated to be 66%, suggesting something is out of kilter for minority males, not to mention the system as a whole. What must also be noted is that the minority females, while doing better than comparable males, have not achieved at close to white female levels in the district. The African-American female graduation rate is estimated at 46%, Hispanic female, 50%, and white female, 75%. This is just one measure, albeit a critical one, of achievement.
Do these differences among these groups start at young ages or do they develop over time, perhaps as peer pressure gets stronger? Do the differences vary by subject area or are boys behind girls in levels of achievement on every subject? And do Hispanic males and females more closely follow the patterns of achievement for whites or for African-Americans? These are important questions to answer, because the answers can lead to more appropriate curricula and teaching methods.
If gender differences are not an issue, then we can look for other factors that might make better targets for interventions. Given the media coverage, we look first to the gender differences.