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Do Boys Need ‘Manhood’ Lessons?

Back to Skills

Two powerful new stories — one from China, the other set in Oakland, California — explore how educators are addressing perceived shortfalls in boys’ education: namely, bestowing them with the qualities needed for “manhood.”

Writing for The New York Times, China correspondent (and former education reporter) Javier C. Hernandez examines the country’s push to add more male teachers. Too many young Chinese boys lack appropriate role models in the classroom, the country’s education leaders say. From The Times:

While boys outnumber girls as a result of the longstanding one-child policy and a cultural preference for sons, they consistently lag in academic performance. Some parents worry about their sons’ prospects in an uncertain economy, so they are putting their hopes in male role models who they believe impart lessons on assertiveness, courage and sacrifice.

As Hernandez notes, the new campaign is resulting in a fair amount of backlash, both from parents and female educators who say this kind of gender stereotyping is inherently harmful. At the same time, Chinese parents are clearly struggling to balance cultural expectations with more modern ideas of how students learn.

And China is not alone in grappling with gender issues in schools, and looking to address achievement gaps among boys and girls. Indeed, the U.S. has had a resurgence in single-sex education, spurred by a federal provision that allowed public dollars to be spent on single-sex classrooms, when certain conditions are met. (Read Melinda Anderson’s recent piece for more.)

Across the Pacific Ocean from the Chinese provinces, a public school district’s classes in ”manhood” for African-American boys are drawing attention. Writing for The New York Times’ Education Life supplement, Patricia Leigh Brown reports that Oakland Unified is the nation’s first district to have a central-office department dedicated specifically to addressing the needs of its black male students. The goal is to improve their educational outcomes and opportunities, and to end long-standing policies of harsh discipline that have shown little positive effect:

“When black children do what children do, the system reacts more harshly,” said Christopher P. Chatmon, the executive director of the Office of African American Male Achievement and its turbo-powered guiding force. “The No. 1 strategy to reduce discipline issues is engaged instruction.” In Manhood Development, he added, “we’re talking about how to elevate their game academically through the lens of brotherhood.”

The special courses in Oakland public schools also have a strong emphasis on African-American history, and those are valuable lessons for all students – even when it’s not February. But given that it is Black History Month, a 2015 piece by teacher and blogger Jose Vilson, on the value of frank classroom conversations about race, is worth reading:

History isn’t just a set of facts to memorize. Black History Month should be an activation of our students’ agency, to understand the triumphs and follies anywhere and to hopefully do better than we did. As our classrooms get more diverse (and our teaching staffs less so), we ought to push for all people, and not just people of color, to see different faces use their voices to make a better world through their own agency.

The shift in the nation’s public schools to a predominantly non-white student population brings its own challenges.Professor Dorinda Carter Andrews of Michigan State University says recognizing how our own experiences influence our perspectives on race is the first step toward reducing bias. Here’s what she told an audience of journalists at a 2014 EWA Seminar on the teaching profession:

“As education reporters, you have to ask yourselves, ‘Have I thought about the personal lenses I bring and how they shape the ways in which I see the story, see the context, and then narrate and write it?’ ” Carter Andrews said.

For more on these issues, take a look at our Topics Page on Demographics and Diversity. There’s also been some fine reporting in recent weeks on a new study that found black students taught by black teachers were more likely to end up in gifted and talented programs. I recommend starting with Jill Barshay’s piece for The Hechinger Report.