Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Gender Discrepancies in the Classroom

Amanda and Lise created an aesthetically pleasing report on H1N1 Flu. My year 12s have a desktop publishing project due in the next couple weeks, and I allowed my the class to run free in Microsoft Publisher today to explore the program. While a couple of the boys sat around giggling at WordArt, many of the girls diligently put together cohesive, structured mini-projects. In general, this sampling is representative of the gender discrepancies in the rest of my classes: on the whole girls are more likely to be successful in the classroom.

I don't mean to imply all Samoan boys aren't smart or that teaching girls is incredibly easy and teaching boys is difficult. There are many boys in my classes that are witty and clever and seem to have preternatural knowledge of the Microsoft Office Suite. I'm just saying that in general, there seems to be a discrepancy in classroom success that favors girls. My year 13 class is has a 2-to-1 ratio of females to males. 7 of my top 10 students in my year 12 class are girls. It’s even easier to see the discrepancy in comparing the gender make-up of the female-heavy 9.1, 10.1, and 11.1 classes—i.e. classes that rank highest academically—with the male-heavy 9.5, 10.4, and 11.4 classes.

This doesn’t seem to be unusual for most volunteers in the area. In fact, the subject surfaced while waiting for pizza with a bunch of volunteers from Samoa and one serving in Tonga. The discussion started when the Tongan volunteer asked if it was common for fafafine to be well educated, fulfilling the female gender role. We nodded and began to scratch our heads. Why, on the whole, are Samoan girls generally more successful in the classroom?

It seems hardly useful to limit the question to Samoa. I remember when I was an RA in college I had a similar discussion with one of my residents when a report came out showing not only that girls were doing better on the SAT, but that boys’ results were showing a downward trend. I told the resident I was all about feminism, but I couldn't find any benefit in seeing boys falter. She rolled her eyes.

The idea of girls outpacing boys in the classroom is a bit counterintuitive—in the Peace Corps Volunter Reporting Tool, there is a special box to be checked when a project specifically focuses on female education. In many other developing parts of the world, gender inequality invariably favors boys, but here it’s not the case.

I admit I’m not familiar enough with the higher echelons of Samoan society to know whether girls’ dominance in school is reflected in high-level jobs in the public and private sectors, nor does there seem to be much data to show whether this is a new development in Samoa. On the surface, Samoa shows all the trappings of a male-dominant society: the Head of State and Prime Minister are both men, all pastors within the Samoan Congregationalist church are men, etc.

It’s also difficult to speculate about the reasons for the discrepancy. One of Sara’s students wrote a position paper in favor of the statement, “A woman’s place is in the house.” A slightly appalled Sara asked where a man’s place is. “Behind the house,” the girl replied. It is traditional for women to stay home and cook and clean while men go out to the maumaga, the plantation, to work. But this seems like too simple an explanation; particularly in this modern age where students spend most of their time in relatively urban Apia.

And what does all this means for the future of Samoa? In an interview with NPR, Reihan Salam, a commentator who recently wrote an article in Foreign Policy Magazine entitled “The Death of Macho,” talked about how in America 30 years ago, most veterinarians were men, and how today, the industry’s done a complete turnaround and somewhere around 80% of American vets are women. Might we see similar changes in Samoa over the next 10 or 20 years? Time will tell.

Either way, it all comes down to finding the best way to reach each student according to his or her needs. Classroom success depends on the students and the teacher. And I'm working on it.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Luana, hard at work on cogent, coherent, independently designed project.

Unidentified boy exploring the C:\ drive.


Barb Carusillo said...

You are right, as a society, we don't want the men to falter. I have all daughters, and I want them to have the same opportunities as anyone, but if I had birthed a son, I would want the absolute same for him. I think most of us feel that way, so what is the explanation for the boys lowering scores, here and there, I wonder? Something in the water? Obviously not affecting any of you PCV boys!

Chris said...

Separate schools for boys and girls is how you can get more boys to focus I reckon. Girls and colorful things make school too much fun for most boys and less about learning, but then would you have wanted it any different..Ha ha thats my 2 sene.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever wondered why the female praying mantis eats the male after sex? Because he's useless afterwards and will just go back to exploring the c:\ drive.

k. said...

One major factor in the discrepancy in a lot of classrooms is often how "good student" is defined, and if those qualities are ones likely to be reinforced by the peer group. Sitting quietly, for example, may be a behavior more likely to be policed within a group of girls by the girls themselves.

As far as the "it's feminism" argument - I'd say it could be an expression of patriarchal values instead. If the qualities associated with being a "good student" are getting to be strongly associated with "being a girl" and having "feminine" qualities continues to be something negative for boys, for example. The benefits of an education (usually framed as "getting a good job") may be more strongly tied to education for a woman. What are the "good" jobs in Samoa? You don't need much education (if any) to work as a heavy machine operator on a construction site, as an example. I've met several American Samoan men who spent their youth in the States operating cranes, bulldozers, backhoes, etc. and getting paid far more than many educated people back in American Samoa. I look at some of the job listings here and get frustrated - I see jobs that require at least an AA degree and years of related experience, and offer only part-time hours and terrible pay, relative to the same jobs in the States (made all the worse by the observation that hardly anyone here supports only themselves on their paycheck). Not to say that there are no benefits to an education for boys - especially if the next factor is in play.

Another possible factor: I don't know how common it is in your school - I've noticed that here in American Samoa, it's common for "good student" boys to be sent to live with family in the States to get an education and then hopefully get a "good" job that will enable them to help support their family. That could be part of it too.

Anonymous said...

Love your blog entries. All very intelligent observations of Samoa. Well done.

In Samoan society, women can assume political leadership positions, but usually they lead cultural and social functions, whereas men lead the political functions. However, the success of females in education is starting to show through in the increasing number of female CEOs heading govt depts and samoan businesses.