kitchen table math, the sequel: "The Puzzzle of Gender Differences"

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"The Puzzzle of Gender Differences"


This paper explores differences between men and women in educational outcomes and responsiveness to educational interventions. Male education levels have stagnated for decades, while female education levels have risen steadily. Women now outnumber men in college, with especially large sex differentials among Blacks and Hispanics. Existing evidence shows that females respond more strongly to intensive preschool interventions and incentives to perform in college; I provide new evidence that females are also more sensitive to college costs. To shed light on this pattern of results, I trace the development of gender differences in educational attainment from primary school through college. I show that boys now start school at a later age than girls and are more likely to be retained in grade. In a historical reversal, boys are less likely than girls to be enrolled in school at age 16. Fewer men than women men now graduate high school; among those who do graduate, men are more likely than women to hold a General Equivalency Diploma (GED). About a fifth of today's gender gap in college attainment is explained by sex differences in the probability of graduating with a high school diploma or a GED. Controlling for these factors halves the gender gap in college attainment for cohorts entering high school in the 1980s. Among those born in the early Eighties, racial and ethnic differences in the gender gap in college entry are completely explained by differential rates of high school graduation and GED receipt.

I provide new evidence on sex differences in the impact of tuition prices on college choice, entry and completion. The new evidence presented in this paper suggests that lowering college costs will not close the gender gap in college attainment. A drastic reduction in the cost of college substantially increases the college enrollment and completion rates of women, but has no impact upon men. The divergence in impacts by sex is especially stark among nonwhites, among whom gender gap in educational attainment is largest. I conclude that policies that make college less expensive will increase education levels, but widen the gender gap, since more women are on the margin of entering and completing college.


My findings complement existing evidence that girls are increasingly better prepared than boys to enter college (Goldin, Katz and Kuziemko, 2006). I show that boys now enter elementary school at a later age than girls and are more likely to be retained in grade; both of these differences have increased over time. Over the lifecycle, sex differences in academic performance cumulate; boys fall further behind girls as they age. Among cohorts entering high school in the Seventies, 25 percent of boys were below their expected grade by age 12, compared to 17 percent for girls. Among those in high school during the Nineties the rates were a stunning 36 percent for boys and 24 percent for girls.


Several facts are clear ... First, age at school entry is rising. The share of six-year-olds enrolled in first grade or above drops sharply between the 1962 and 1998 birth cohorts. The drop is sharper for boys, from 95 percent for the 1962 cohort to 80 percent for the 1998 cohort. Among girls, the drop is from 96 percent to 84 percent. Boys are getting a later start in elementary school, relative to girls, than they once did. The gap is especially large for cohorts born in the early Eighties, when kindergarten retention was a popular policy.

Second, boys fall further behind girls as they age. In the 1962 birth cohort, 25 percent of boys born were enrolled below their expected grade at age 12, compared to 17 percent for girls. The gender gap in retention peaked among the cohorts born in the mid-Eighties: 36 percent of 12-year-old boys and 24 percent of girls were behind grade. For the most recent cohorts, 32 percent of 12-year-old boys and 25 percent of girls are below grade. These statistics imply that, starting early in school, boys are older than their female classmates, and that this difference is growing. These substantial shifts in the relative age composition of boys and girls in elementary and middle school grades are as yet unexamined by economists. A growing age gap between girls and boys could alter classroom dynamics in unexpected ways, as well as alter social relationships between boys and girls.

A further implication is that boys now reach the minimum age of school-leaving at a lower level of educational attainment than girls. To the extent that compulsory-schooling laws bind, boys will drop out of school at a lower level of educational attainment than girls. Even if boys were to drop out of school at the same age as girls, they would do so with lower levels of completed schooling. However, boys now leave school at a younger age than girls, a reversal of the historical pattern.


[T]he enrollment rate is identical and equal to one for girls and boys in primary school and middle school. After age 15, in all three cohorts, the two sexes begin to diverge in their enrollment rates. But where girls once fell behind boys in their school enrollment starting at age 16 (Figure 6, gray line for 1962-63 birth cohorts), girls now they pull ahead of boys at the same age (dashed line for 1982-83 birth cohorts). The differences intensify with age. At age 21, boys from the cohort born in the Sixties were 4.2 percentage points more likely than girls to be enrolled in school. Boys from the cohort born in the Eighties are 4.7 percentage points less likely than girls to be enrolled in school.

Cradle to College: The Puzzle of Gender Differences in Educational Outcome (pdf file)
Susan Dynarski
Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government & National Bureau of Economic Research
May 2007

My findings complement existing evidence that girls are increasingly better prepared than boys to enter college (Goldin, Katz and Kuziemko, 2006).

teachers and schools...

Skimming the surface of this article, I was wondering whether sex differences in educational attainment might be the one phenomenon schools & pundits decide not to blame on parents, seeing as how we're talking about two populations of students -- boys and girls -- but just one population of parents.

Then I came to this passage:

Where in the lifecycle does the gender gap in schooling emerge?

Tracing the arc of educational production through the lifecycle provides suggestive evidence on the degree to which gender gaps in education among young adults are a function of biological differences, the choices of parents, the actions of schools and their own choices.

The answer will help us to rule out some existing hypotheses about its sources, and perhaps generate some new ones. If the gender gap first appears during high school, then we would focus on boys and girls as the decision-makers weighing the costs and benefits of educational investments. By contrast, if the gender gap first appears in first grade, we would tend to discount theoretical explanations that treat boys and girls as the decision-makers. We would instead focus on the actions of parents, teachers and schools.3 Changes in teaching methods, the composition of the teaching force, and the organization of schools would all be plausible culprits.

Existing research suggests that teachers and schools do play a role in generating sex differences in educational outcomes. Dee shows that girls and boys both learn more when being taught by a teacher of the same sex. Anderson (2006), in a reanalysis of data from the Perry Preschool, Abcederian and Early Training Projects, shows that the effects of these programs were large for girls and nonexistent for boys. Malamud and Schanzenbach (2007) show that female teachers rate the performance of boys more harshly than that of girls.

I must say, the puzzle of gender differences in educational attainment is not much of a puzzle to me. Getting a boy through public school in one piece -- especially a middle school --- isn't easy.

Public schools are utterly feminized. It's not just that women make up the majority of the teaching staff and, in my district, nearly all of the administration. The ideology of public schools is "feminine" regardless of the sex of whichever educator happens to be taking your son to task for poor character or inadequate school spirit at any given moment.

The language is feminine.

I recall a time when the only people using the word "enhance" were the folks writing up the bride's wedding gown for the women's pages.

Seed pearls. Weren't seed pearls always a big enhancement?

Not any more.

grade deflation for boys?
Harris School Assistant Professors Ofer Malamud and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, for example, wondered whether their (very preliminary) finding that teachers rate boys more harshly in reading and science than suggested by standardized tests may perhaps explain boys’ detachment from school early on.

Mind the Gap: Gender and Schools

I hadn't intended to get into this yet, but..... bingo.

This is exactly what's been happening around here: grades in school much lower than standardized test scores, a gap not explained by emotional or behavioral problems.

That is to say, C. does all of his homework (the bulk of it on time), is reasonably engaged in school, likes his teachers, likes his friends, wants to do well, has a record of 2 detentions in 3 years (one for an unauthorized lunchtime trip to the library where he attempted to print out his Earth Science homework before the librarian had him arrested and clapped in irons) ... and yet his grades are so-so while his standardized test scores are high. Extremely high in the case of reading.

I've mentioned the fact that, come fall, C. will attend a different school.

The new school is selective; they take no one scoring below the 75th percentile on the entrance exam. Thus, a few weeks ago, we were stunned to receive a letter from the new school informing us that C. had placed into "Advanced Honors Algebra 2."

When I say "stunned," I mean really, really stunned. Stunned as in speechless.

Here in Irvington, C. has had the computer-generated comment "Finds subject matter difficult" printed on his math report card, and that's pretty much been the message we've been given about C's capabilities any time we've raised any issue in any class.*

During our course placement meeting at the high school, the guidance counselor told C. repeatedly that, "Math is a challenge for you." She said Math is a challenge for you so many times that I finally said, "Math isn't a challenge for C. when I teach it," which should give you some idea of how many times the words Math is a challenge for you were uttered: enough times that I actually said "Not when I teach it" out loud, instead of just wanting to say it and wishing later on that I had.

C. was not placed in Honors math for high school here. Next year he would have taken regular geometry along with the rest of the sophomore class. He would have been accelerated by a year because he's completed Math A, but he'd be back in the regular math track with all the kids who have been finding regular math to be -- wait for it! -- a challenge (as well as with the regular-track kids who haven't found regular math to be a challenge, of course).

The funny thing about the "Advanced Honors Algebra 2" placement was that math was the only Honors course C. got into at his new school. No Honors bio, no Honors English, no Honors social studies, even.

Naturally, we were downcast. It just didn't seem right that C. could suddenly be an Honors math kid and not be an Honors history kid. So we were back to brainstorming the edu-situation, trying to figure out what had happened, speculating about the best approach to take to change their minds, etc. Very discouraging. The one thing in life we do not want to be doing ever again is wrangling with our kid's school about anything.

Ed called the school & spoke to the assistant principal, who said she'd get back to him.

When she called a few days later, I answered the phone and the AP said the computer had made a mistake. C. was in Honors everything. English, bio, math, history.

I'm so trained to the idea that school is a challenge for my kid that I panicked -- Honors everything?? We hadn't remotely been thinking about Honors everything. We'd been going back and forth between asking the school to put C. in Honors history, too, versus asking them to swap Honors math for Honors history so he'd still have one Honors course but it would be in his best subject.

I started stuttering and stammering, and finally said, "Honors Bio? Can he handle Honors Bio?"

"He'll do fine," the AP said. Her tone was short; she was ending the conversation. Clearly, she had no idea what I was talking about. The way things work for incoming freshmen at the new school is: the kids take an admissions test and a placement test, the computer assigns them to Honors or regular track courses, and the school sends a letter to the parents inviting their child to take whichever Honors courses he's tested into.

Then the parents send a letter back saying their child accepts the honors invitation.

And that's it.

A week later Ed spoke to her and asked, "Do you recommend that he take all Honors courses?"

The AP said, "Yes."

That was all. "Yes." The word "yes" sums up the school's entire position on whether a kid who's been placed in an Honors course should take an Honors course.

We're entering a completely different world.

Have I mentioned the fact that the new school is a boys' school?

The Why Chromosome: How a Teacher's Gender Affects Boys and Girls
by Thomas Dee

* If I get around to it, I'll exercise my FERPA rights to have C's school record corrected. Knowing me, I probably will get around to it.


Anonymous said...

What a difference a school makes. Congrats all around.

Honors bio appears to be very reading-heavy which plays into C.'s strengths. Fantastic.


Independent George said...

Obviously, the machine-graded tests are biased, while the teachers' personal observations are correct.

Ben Calvin said...

I think you're entering a school that is confident in its own ability to teach.

ElizabethB said...

I know several successful men who would have been diagnosed with ADHD and given drugs if they went through today's school systems. Most of them can't sit still, one of them has to chew a rubber band to concentrate--and yet, all are individuals who have excelled in their fields. The rubber band chewer is one of the most successful.

Would they be successful today if they had gone through today's system?

And what impact would drugs have had on them?

Tracy said...

What lovely news about C! You must be thrilled.

concerned said...

This is GREAT news!!

Sounds like you could relax for a while (if you wanted to) but I bet that you will continue to "fight the good fight" for others still struggling in the public system.

Catherine Johnson said...


We're on Cloud 9. It was great having the SNAFU because we've now had an example of how the school handles problems and questions, so we're not nervous about "what happens when the honeymoon ends?" Which is great.

We've also been sent the message that the school views C's abilities as higher than we've come to view them. How often does that happen???

The confidence Ben mentions is amazing. They're not just confident of their teaching, they're confident of their ability to place students correctly.

Accurate placement is a HUGE issue here. I mentioned in another post the fact that for YEARS we were told that the accelerated math course was oversubscribed because pushy parents "got their kids in where they don't belong" --- and the K-5 teachers were too weak to resist. (That was the other part of the narrative.)

But then, when the middle school administered a very difficult placement test to 5th graders & cut a bunch of kids from the track, the kids who tested in still had a horrible time.

C. easily tested into the accelerated math track here, a fact I happen to know because I asked.

And you all know how that's gone. Not well.

Same thing with the super-selective admissions process for Earth Science.

Last school year they created a formal rubric that was quite clear about who would & would not be invited to take the course. There were 4 criteria, iirc...grades, score on the science section of the CTBS, and a couple of others.

C. easily made the cut-off for Earth Science and was invited to take the course.

By the middle of this year his grade was down to a C (ineffective newly tenured teacher, lots of kids being tutored - same old, same old).

We met with the teacher & the chair of the department, who told us C. has weak inferential thinking, that he is better suited to a memorization course than to a conceptual course like Earth Science, AND: "Remember, C didn't do that well on the CTBS. He got in on the other criteria."

The whole thing was mind-boggling.

As with math, C. easily passed the numerical rubric they'd constructed; this was their placement process, not ours. The score they wanted on the CTBS was an 80; he got a 78.

(The CTBS is a norm-referenced test, which raises the question of why it is districts like Pelham can teach Earth Science to all 8th graders while Irvington can only teach kids scoring in the top 20% of the entire country.)

However, the department chair had plainly stated in the transition-to-87th-grade meeting that a score of 80 was not a "cut score." The whole rubric was constructed as a continuum.

Point being: they placed him in the course.

By the time we met with them, C. had grades in the class ranging from A to F. He was doing A and B-level work in every other class, he was not having emotional/behavioral problems, and there had been no "changes at home."

Clearly the problem was on the school's side of the desk, and yet the department chair (who is the chair of science 6-12) thought nothing of telling us that the problem was those missing 2 points on the CTBS & C. was a borderline admit.

In which case, the problem is with their placement process & they owe us an apology & several months of free tutoring, as far as I'm concerned.

The upshot of the meeting was that I would be teaching Earth Science, a subject I know NOTHING about. Thank God for Instructivist, who gave me a list of Earth Science books.

For a while there I was staying up 'til 1 and 2 am every morning pouring over the Earth Science textbook teaching myself Earth Science so I could teach it to C while also working every math assignment AND finishing my book.

C's grades in the class instantly went back up to the A to B+ range. As soon as you've got a parent who knows NOTHING about Earth science reteaching the course, all is well.

We were saved by a teacher-switch mid-year. The regular teacher went on leave & they brought in a new young rookie teacher who is AMAZING. People say she's only around 24 years old --- but, boy, she can teach.

C's grades have hovered around B+ ever since she got here & I have had NOTHING to do with the course.

If she had a couple more years' experience every kid in the class would be getting an A.

Next week she's holding Regents review sessions all week long, & C says he's going to every one.

Great, great teacher.

Catherine Johnson said...

I bet that you will continue to "fight the good fight" for others still struggling in the public system

I'm gonna have to if I'm expecting any of these young 'uns to make enough money to send me a social security check or two.

K9Sasha said...

First, age at school entry is rising.

Could this have anything to do with kindergarten today being like 1st grade used to be?

Today's schools are topsy-turvy. They expect 1st graders to use "higher order thinking skills" to analyze information, while having huge numbers of high schoolers who can't read. I interviewed with a local school district for a job as a special education teacher. The head of education told me quite proudly that his elementary kids were able to participate in classes because the teacher was asking lots of higher order thinking questions. The job I was interviewing for? To teach high school students to read.

I learned something long ago that apparently no one in Edland understands - you go faster by going slower.

I also want to say congratulations to Catherine on finding a new school for C. It sounds like it's going to be great!

Anonymous said...

Yes, K9Sasha,

Age at school entry is rising because kindergarten is the new first grade. No longer is it finger painting and story time, but seat work, expectations of being able to sit still, etc.

It's an abomination for boys, in particular. and pediatricians and parents alike give and get the advice to hold back their sons and start them later so they will be able to handle the organizational and social aspects of grade K and 1 now.

But there is another reason where I live. Every single mother of a boy in a mom's club where I live INTENTIONALLY held back their sons so that they'd be phsyically bigger when it's time to play sports.
Sporting events, sports outcomes, and the chance for a scholarship through sports--not through academics--are so important that they want the "Edge" by having their kid stand a bit taller, be a bit bigger on that playing field.

Priorities, priorities.

Anonymous said...

"... the chance for a scholarship through sports--not through academics ..."

Do non-trivial academic scholarships exist for undergraduate education? I have never heard of any. Sports, on the other hand ...

-Mark Roulo

concernedCTparent said...

The course of C's life has been forever changed and it's absolutely fabulous! I'm so happy for C and for all of you.


Allison said...

The Regents Scholarship in the University of California was a full ride scholarship based on academics--tuition, books, stipend for living, etc. It may be need-limited now, or more trivial for those with no need, I don't know.

Rice used to give full ride academic scholarships. So did OSU. Florida has something in place that's a full ride academic+leadership based scholarship.

Catherine Johnson said...

My perception is that there is a lot of money out there for academic scholarships. It's mostly based on SAT scores & your kid has to go to a school that's 1 tier down from the best school he can get into.

Yes, there's money. Inside colleges these scholarships are called "discounts."

Because of the ranking systems, colleges are in a bidding war for high SATs.

Catherine Johnson said...

The Ivies are now lowering (dropping?) tuition for students whose parents earn....$100K and under, I believe. (not fact-checked - I probably have the exact figures wrong)

Catherine Johnson said...

synchronicity--we went to the "Sports Orientation Night" at C's new school on Monday.


Apparently sports orientation night is pretty much it: the main event before C. actually gets to the school. (I did also attend the Mother's Club fashion show this spring...)

The principal said that 2% of all high school athletes get athletic scholarships to college.

Then he called the quest for athletic scholarships a "crap shoot."

It was a wonderful evening. C. said afterwards that he was ecstatic, and I felt the same way.

"We play to win," they said. This appeared to be a core value: playing to win. "But academics come first."

I don't have the skill to capture the evening in words; it was so different from anything I've ever experienced. The evening was about sports, but the "focus" was on some way I can't express.

One interesting thing: the principal said that 10 or 12 years ago the school had decided to raise admission standards. The one thing he regretted at the time, he told his wife, was that their athletic programs would probably take a hit.

Instead, their teams began winning far more championships. I wrote down one statistic: from 1984 to 2001 the school won 16 citywide championships. Then in 2001 alone they won 19 citywide championships.

Catherine Johnson said...

It was interesting....because a lot of the kids in that audience are going to experience failure as soon as they hit the school and try out for football.

There was a lot of "counseling" from the podium about how to think about the fact that you've been cut, how to think about it, what to do next, etc. The athletic director told the kids and their parents, "It happens to all of us eventually. I played college ball, I thought I would play in the Leagues. But I got cut."

He and the tennis coach also told stories of kids who'd gotten cut and who had then made the team and become the best player later on.

The whole evening was a means of "culture setting," I think. That's the term KIPP uses for what they do during the 3 weeks KIPP kids attend school before school actually starts.

Every adult who spoke was teaching the kids and their parents about the importance of working hard, playing to win, and showing resilience -- and flexibility -- in the face of defeat.

Interestingly, they encourage every student in the school to play 2 sports; they seem to like having the kids play 3 sports.

Catherine Johnson said...

Could this have anything to do with kindergarten today being like 1st grade used to be?

Kindergarten wasn't like that for C, particularly.

The people I know who held their boys back did so because their sons weren't going to be manage the social structure & organization of school...

In some ways, I would say that the problem was that their boys just weren't going to fit into a completely female environment.

The particular boy I'm thinking of is extremely bright & capable; there's no issue of academic ability, and he doesn't play sports (which I think is a mistake, btw).

I think his mom has used the expression "square peg in a round hole."

My district is utterly female.

Young female teachers in particular, I've noticed, can be quite scandalized by the aggression of little boys. I once had a talk with a young teacher at my church who was distressed by what sounded to me like a normal boy in her Kindergarten class. She saw this boy as having significant problems, and she hadn't thought about how much wild-and-woolly behavior is natural for boys.

On a related topic: I've just asked the middle school for the gender ratio of kids invited to join the Junior Honor Society.

C. and his friends seem to think only two boys were invited, one of whom is now being kicked out because he didn't attend Junior Honor Society meetings.

The reason he didn't attend Junior Honor Society meetings?

He didn't know when they were.

Boys just aren't cut out for middle school.

Catherine Johnson said...

Junior Honor Society is run by the health teacher who taught the kids about helicopter parents.

I managed to quash the urge to send her an email about that one.

She taught the concept wrong. The class that day was devoted to "stress," and the kids were supposed to tell each other what things cause them stress. Needless to say, pushy parents cause kids stress.

The teacher said, "Those parents are called helicopter parents."

No, those parents are called pushy parents.

Pushy parents push their kids.

Helicopter parents push the school.

Catherine Johnson said...

Having seen the results of holding a boy back a year....I don't think it's a great idea.

It means that you end up with a 14-year old young man still in middle school.

It's not good at all.

It is true, from what I've seen, that the older kids in a class are more dominant and more popular.

They're much more popular with girls.

"Redshirting" isn't working well for anyone, I'd say. I don't think it ends up being especially good for the boys held back, and it's bad for the boys who aren't held back, too, from what I've seen.

K9Sasha said...

The more I work with kids who are slower than their peers at learning how to read, the more I think about how schools are set up. I keep coming back to the idea that the school reform we really need (besides solid foundational curricula) is to do away with grade levels.

I've worked with so many kids who need the gift of time - and I'm not talking about holding them back a year, or waiting to teach them reading until they're older. I'm talking about giving each child the amount of time it takes for him or her to learn a concept before moving on. How could we do that? Well, I suppose that's what some people are trying to do now in homogenous classrooms with "differentiated instruction," but it doesn't seem to be working very well. No, what I'm thinking of is to do away with grade levels altogether and group kids by what they need to learn.

You could have 10 year olds and 6 year olds all learning how to multiply three digits by three digits if that's what they're all ready to learn. You could have 10 year olds and 6 year old in the same group learning how to sound out CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words if that's what they need to learn.

When 2nd graders who can't read are pushed ahead into third, it's a tragedy in the making. Here's a child who, three years into school, is already two to three years behind. Not only is he or she expected to make up that lag, but to learn all the new material that his or her classmates are expected to learn, as well.

On the other hand, gifted kids could be challenged and learn how to work hard in school, rather than coast as they do now. I've forgotten the percentage, but a surprising number of high school dropouts are gifted. I can think of two reasons for this: 1) they're bored out of their skulls, 2) they never learned study skills because they could get A's without working at it.

I've thought about the logistics of how my ideas could be implemented and think there's a lesson to be learned from Boy Scouts where kids earn merit badges and rank advancements on their own time frame. It's not a perfect paradigm, but not too bad, either.

The issue of grade levels and progress toward graduation also applies to high school. I just read in EdWeek that a school district in Arizona is planning to flout a state law requiring students who are new to English to get 4 hours of English instruction per day. The school district is worried that the kids will be falling behind their same age peers in other subject areas. The whole area of how best to teach English to immigrants is contentious, but let's put that aside. What would help these kids, given the Arizona law, is a year of nothing but English - a year "out." Don't worry about math, science, or social studies. Just take a year to teach the students English, then put them back into the stream toward graduation requirements.

It would be fun to get some feedback on my ideas to see what all of you think about it.

Catherine Johnson said...

I've just now read the rest of Allison's comment -- that's pretty much what I meant to say about the boys I know who were held back.

For the kids I know there wasn't an issue of cognitive or academic readiness or ability.

It was all about being able to function in the social setting of school. Attend to the teacher, do things with the group, etc.

Catherine Johnson said...

Sporting events, sports outcomes, and the chance for a scholarship through sports--not through academics--are so important that they want the "Edge" by having their kid stand a bit taller, be a bit bigger on that playing field.

Does that work?

This reminds me of the great freakonomics column on soccer stars.

They were the youngest kids in their classes, iirc; I believe the argument was that because they started school earlier than other kids in their rough age group they snapped up the limited supply of great teachers and coaches.

(I'll check this...)

Catherine Johnson said...

good grief

I have it EXACTLY backwards

This may explain my failure as a soccer mom

(Google freakonomics & soccer & birthday & you'll find the article)

Allison said...

Btw, I just read a great book on sex differences in children and how they play out called "Why Gender Matters" (too bad they misuse the word Gender in the title).

It pointed out that keeping your son out of K or first grade for a year was great--didn't mean you didn't teach him to read or count, but didn't make him deal with the social conforming aspects--but that HOLDING HIM BACK was A DISASTER.

And that if you put him in K, and he did poorly, and the teacher said "keep him back" the child understood that to mean he was a failure. So this was another reason to wait a year before formal schooling, because the boy was better able to negotiate the feminine classroom, essentially.

The book had some other amazing insights, too, about how boys and girls develop their brains differently, and at different ages, so that even if AS ADULTS there are few measurable differences, that's not true of children and their verbal skills, spatial skills, etc.

It said something I had never heard before: boys don't hear as well as girls, don't hear the same frequencies as loudly. So girls respond well in the quiet, and to a quiet speaker, while boys LITERALLY can't hear it. The book had peer reviewed journal citations to back this up.

The take away: kindergarten teachers don't know this, they talk too quietly, read too quietly, and get frustrated that the boys "aren't attending" when simply put, the boys can't hear them.

Anonymous said...


I'm a proponent of obliterating grade levels. My take is that they are at the root of lots of problems with public education and completely out of sync with our capabilties. On my blog is a longish essay on same. Here's a taste...

Imagine you’re the manager of the Willy Wonka chocolate factory. You’re responsible for inserting raw ingredients into various spots on your assembly line in order to create wonderful confections. Each ingredient, to be effectively transformed, must have a specific chemical composition. The irony to your job is that you can only pick ingredients based upon how long they’ve been in the box and where they come from. You actually don’t attempt to find out the composition until after the ingredient is cooked.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about obliterating grade levels, because I haven't thought enoguh about your alternatives, but this part:

-- not talking about holding them back a year, or waiting to teach them reading until they're older. I'm talking about giving each child the amount of time it takes for him or her to learn a concept before moving on.

this is PRECISELY how John Holt demonstrated he could teach ANYONE, including a highly autistic child. There was a famous demonstration of him showing how he used those (sp?) Cuisenaire rods and a child that was thought to have an IQ below 80 and he just kept at the basics until the child understood the concept of number. I thnk Sig Engelmann has basically shown the same thing: do DI at their pace, until mastery, and you have mastery, period.

But, as a society, we have to make choices. You want to work at the child's pace--but how do you know what that is, unless you even have standards for what they should know? You need to know the distance they need to travel in order to compute the time needed to get there at their rate. If you don't know their rate, and you don't know the distance, then you can't compute the time. How do you do that when you don't know if the problem is in the instuction, and cant' assess the teacher or instruction, just the child? How does doing away with grade levels help us understand where we should be teaching kids to be at--you want minimum standards, right? And the difference between a child that can reach that with 1000 hours of instruction and 10000 hours of instruction is solved by what level of intervention? At what cost? At the margin, what's an hour of instruction buying you?

Anonymous said...


I had this amazing opportunity this year to work with about 100 kids on a pilot program implementing a system called ALEKS (google it). An elevator pitch for this product might be that it is an 'intelligent driller'. It makes real time predictions based on where kids are and puts stuff in front of them that they are ready for. It's kind of like DI on steroids. When they've mastered something they are challenged with the next idea.

I don't think this is an automated teacher at all but it was, for me, an incredible journey inside kids learning because I saw kids of mixed grades (because of the way we implemented the logistics) mastering, comfortably, at vastly different acquistion rates. You just don't get to see that, objectively, in a normal classroom.

I teach in a really tough environment; 30+% turnover, 80+% free and reduced lunch, 30% IEP, and 20+% ELL (those pluses mean you can double the numbers up to 100% depending on what part of town you teach in).

This system keeps kids in their personal ZPD and I would bring kids in to a lab 30 at a time and after 5 minutes of login travail they would, each and every one, be working away like beavers; humming, sharing, competing, asking questions. These were kids drawn from multiple grades and classrooms with no established rituals or routines and no connection to me. I am the math coach in their school not their teacher. I was constantly in demand, showing multiple representations, clarifying vocab, cheering, etc.

I'm convinced from this, that keeping kids in their ZPD is the Rosetta Stone for success. I've been with these same kids in their classrooms with as many as four adults in the room and little learning happening. Scripted delivery is designed for the median child who is not in the room!

I'm not advocating this system. It's not a teacher and no way could it replace one. It is however, a little prism through which, you can see what might be.

SteveH described, in another post, how he 'taught' his kids. It was precisely the correct way to teach; metered delivery, thoughtfully stressful, no pressure, and exactly fitted to the ZPD. My take is that we need to apply technology in ways that enable teachers to keep 30 or so kids in this zone all day long. The model is right in front of our eyes with home schoolers and 'Steves'. You just need to scale it.

What we have now is only fitfully appropriate, never consistant, and totally incapable of the kind of 'touch' that Steve provided. I don't think it's impossible to get to. We did it in one room school houses 200 years ago and turned out kids in eight years that would blow away today's high school grads.

We just have so much crap in the way now that we can't seem to get up the stones to even try.

Allison said...

The problem with "let's let kids move at their own pace" is that it's ALREADY been co-opted to mean "let's NOT TEACH KIDS. Let's NOT make demands. Let's do discovery learning and merely coach them." And lo and behold, in 4th grade, some of them can't READ--because the teachers decided to "give the gift of time" for the prior 3 years of school, waiting for them to be "ready", whatever that meant.

The tragedy is NOT that a 2nd grader who can't read is pushed into 3rd. The tragedy is that NO ONE TAUGHT THE 2nd GRADER TO READ.

Some kids will need more instruction than others. KIPP succeeds by actually having kids spend more hours in school. And clearly, if you student A and B, where A is reading 2+ above grade level, and B is 2- grade level, then even a system like DI on steroids isn't going to move B to an equal position to A if both kids are given only the same amount of time to study, even if it does move B to an above average position. So what is the goal?

It's this "we" I keep noticing and question."we really need to do away with grade levels", "we did it in a one room school house." Who is this "we"?

What problem are "we" trying to solve?

You want to solve the schooling problem for all children, in all schools, but have yet to state from first principles what education is FOR in a society, even though you want to solve society's schooling problem. Other KTMers don't care at all, and have stated as such. SteveH wants to solve the schooling problem for HIS child. So does VickyS--that is, they want some school to respond to Their Child's Needs, as they define them, and they want that within certain financial boundaries, without regard to where the money comes from for that. So "we" don't have the same starting principles, the same goals, the same criteria for success, even if "we" want one common outcome.

I have no problem hearing that some technology is part of the answer. I don't for a second believe that the education of a one room school house of 200 years ago provided an education good enough for an above average but non-genius child to succeed at MIT, even if that one room school house did better than current "high school grads" --whatever you mean by that monolith (mean, median, mode, or whatever other value and metric you use.)

ALEKS was still used in the confines of a system with standards. Yes, children moving at different rates is great-- IF those at slower rates are given more time so that they can arrive at the same minimal distance. But without that necessary piece, the different rate system falls back into "let's wait until they are 9 years old before teaching them to read" even if now you abolished 4th grade.

K9Sasha said...


I specifically said that "giving kids the gift of time" was not the same thing as waiting forever. I was talking about starting all kids at the same time/age/whatever and teaching them continuously from there.

I think I said something about modeling this program on the Boy Scout's merit badge and rank advancement program. The idea would be that there are certain requirements a student must meet to in order to "get a merit badge" whatever that would actually look like. A certain number of merit badges in certain subjects, and they could advance a rank. Again, I don't have this whole idea fully worked out, but it's something I find myself thinking about as I work with kids who are well below grade level. Pushing them ahead isn't doing them any favors, but I'm not sure holding them back is the answer either. There needs to be a different way of doing things, and this is the idea I came up with.

I think you also made a comment about how much money it would take. I have no idea how many adults would be needed, or much money it would take to run a system like this, but we could do away with special ed, instructional/math/reading coaches, and Title 1 by teaching each child at a level and rate that works for him or her. I also have to think it's better to spend the money on young kids in school than on teenagers and adults in prison.

I love hearing everyone's thoughts on my idea. You're a smart and educated group, and I appreciate your comments.

SteveH said...

"SteveH wants to solve the schooling problem for HIS child. So does VickyS--that is, they want some school to respond to Their Child's Needs, as they define them, and they want that within certain financial boundaries, without regard to where the money comes from for that."

Is that how you interpret all of my posts? Since it is fundamentally wrong, I question the value of even responding.

I got into this argument seven years ago because of math. But the problem turns out to be much more than math. It's about educational philosophy, assumptions, expectations, curriculum, and competence. The current premise is that there has to be one solution and that schools get to decide and not the parents.

In our state, they won't allow KIPP schools or any other choice for parents. I probably wouldn't send my son to a KIPP school, by I support choice. My goals and expectations for my son are different than the expectations of other parents. That's to be expected, and there is nothing stopping states from allowing choice. It is also a mechanism for inluding parents as part of the equation.

I don't look for a technological silver bullet, although that might be a possibility. I also don't look at keeping the same educational organization, but just altering schools to do what I want and not what they want. If some parents want a real world, project-based education, that's fine with me, but don't force me to choose that path. It's OK if other parents feel that way about my educational ideas.

Having no common assumptions, directions, or goals in education doesn't mean that there can't be any solution.

By the way, my son is a straight A (straight 5) student. He'll do just fine. I don't spend all of this time on KTM just for fun or for him.

Anonymous said...

re: One room schools...

They were pretty much gradeless. Older kids taught younger kids as well as keeping up with their own studies and importantly they were pretty homogeneous populations (in a given school). IMO a pretty good model.

I wasn't there, of course, but when I read the letters of those 8th graders I'm astounded at the prose, clarity of thought, conciseness, and just plain artistic content compared to what we are getting today for 13 years of effort.

I remember reading about a district in LA that had something like 112 languages being spoken. Just guessing but they are most likely at 30 or so kids per classroom and spending about 3 minutes per day on average in a conversation with their math teacher. If you push a standard curriculum and pace into a group like that you'd be lucky to actually engage 4 kids.

I think the closer you get to the one room school configuration the higher your chance of creating meaningful on task work pace. The further away you get from this model, the more likely it is that you mistake action for engagement.

VickyS said...

Other KTMers don't care at all, and have stated as such. SteveH wants to solve the schooling problem for HIS child. So does VickyS--that is, they want some school to respond to Their Child's Needs, as they define them, and they want that within certain financial boundaries, without regard to where the money comes from for that.

Ouch. Hey, thanks for the punch in the chops, and from out in left field no less!

Steve responded: Is that how you interpret all of my posts? Since it is fundamentally wrong, I question the value of even responding.

Ditto. Quite a stunning misrepresentation of my views, as well. This is not just about me and my kid, not by a long shot.

The problem with "let's let kids move at their own pace" is that it's ALREADY been co-opted to mean "let's NOT TEACH KIDS. Let's NOT make demands. Let's do discovery learning and merely coach them."

So the idea has been co-opted and twisted to mean something that it doesn't mean..does that make it a bad idea? The logic here escapes me.

And clearly, if you have student A and B, where A is reading 2+ above grade level, and B is 2- grade level, then even a system like DI on steroids isn't going to move B to an equal position to A if both kids are given only the same amount of time to study, even if it does move B to an above average position.

Who said they should be moved to an "equal" position? That's not a goal I would set for an educational system (more on that below). A standards-based system requires that they both reach a minimal standard. If A and B are both taught well (and let's assume for the moment they are) both A and B will also exceed this minimal level. A, being the more capable student, will exceed it by a lot. Is there something wrong with that?

Why teach A for only two hours and B for six hours so that at the end of the day, A and B are at the same place? Why not teach A and B for six hours, and allow A to move 3X as far as B, if A can?

Does is bother you that A, the better student, moves faster, and therefore farther, than B? That A learns more than B? Why, as long as B continues to learn at the rate that B is capable of?

So what is the goal?

My goal would be for both A and B to each learn as much as they can in the six hours. It follows that they will learn unequal amounts. I'm okay with that as long as A and B are challenged--or as Paul puts it, both A and B are working in their ZPD.

What is your goal? I'd like to hear it articulated. How do you propose we teach A and B?

VickyS said...

I've thought about the logistics of how my ideas could be implemented and think there's a lesson to be learned from Boy Scouts where kids earn merit badges and rank advancements on their own time frame.

This kind of reminds me of the SRA reading system that I had in grade school (I'm probably dating myself!). I loved that. There is an element of challenge, and the feeling of success at attaining the objective and moving to the next level. This builds real self-esteem, the kind that results from accomplishment.

It also brings to mind one of the reasons I pulled my older son out of a Waldorf school many years ago. There was no feedback; he could not see if or how he was advancing academically, and this was important to him. Some of these same problems are now present in the regular education system, where the feedback is scarce and also where in some cases such as group projects, students lack control over the product that is to be assessed.

A merit badge type approach, with milestones and achievements along the way, might be motivating for a lot of kids. And it needn't be done individually like the old SRA readers, but in ability-matched cohorts.

Ben Calvin said...

I loved the the SRA reading system, when I was exposed to it in third grade. It was the first really enjoyable experience I had in school.

Anonymous said...

I despised the SRA system, but I was in the 7th grade with the color-coded ones.

I think I'm in the minority, though, because I have friends who loved them.


Anonymous said...

VickyS just gave me one of those ah ha moments when she pushed on the idea of kids going at their own rate.

It seems to me that when you go about setting standards you're on the brow of a hill with very slippery slope and at the bottom of the hill is the arbitrary grouping called grade levels. As soon as you say, "Well in the 6th grade, kids should be doing xyz.", you create a box and go looking for ways to stuff kids into it.

Now I'm thinking standards are crap too. My head is going to explode but hear me out. Isn't it far better to say, "Here is the hierarchical map that kids need to follow to navigate math.", than to just throw them in a box. If you get kids spending quality time in a proper sequence then standards are moot.

One of the things that I've seen over and over is that the curriculum spirals that ooze out of fuzzy math are not mathematically sound. I've seen ridiculous things like problem sets with answers that exceed the numeracy set forth in the same standard (the answer is 100 but kids are only counting to 20 at the time). There are no check points in these spirals so kids get all out of wack. It's like they are being presented with a pixelated version of Mona Lisa while being challenged to come up with a better painting on their own.

Vicky is absolutely correct to push on the presumed expectation that all kids could get the same dosage if we just had better teachers that could adjust the meds. What I've witnessed is that some kids need more time, period. Schools under the current model can't/won't provide that extra time because they are driven by these boxes. If you are a teacher you are constantly trying to push this rope and at the end of the day you know you've not accomplished it.

I don't think kids are linear. One may struggle on concept A and blow the rest of the class away on concept B. If we could just keep them in their zones they might just equalize over time. The problem is that they are mostly never in their zone, they're in a box that wasn't made for them.

And for the record, any readers who think this is a plea for mediocrity or 'settling' could not be more wrong. I'm pretty sure that with a proper legal background I could make the case that what we do today to kids, especially those with special need, is child abuse. Most of them are out in the middle of this 30' pond and we are throwing them 10' lifelines. [For fuzzy math adherents this means you're always 5 feet short. Of course we could assume funny shaped ponds or bungy ropes, or.....]

Instead of arbitrary standards we should be thinking about the length and nature of our ropes. You could easily get mathematical agreement of the proper map. Forget trying to pin kids onto it by virtue of their date of birth or circumstance.

Linda said...

Yes, there are non-trivial academic scholarships.

The University of South Carolina Honors College has a whole variety, both for in-state and out-of-state students. Some are a full ride, others less, but out-of-state kids with Honors College scholarships are also given a real tuition break - pretty much the same as in-state. Also, the quality of education is excellent and Honors College students (and classes) run the gamut of majors - engineering, pre-med, business, Arts/Sciences etc. Unlike many other Honors programs, SC is not limited to underclassmen - I know of a Roman history class which had several grad students and several undergrads and advanced undergraduate courses existed in many fields. And, all Honors courses are taught by faculty- no TAs- and are small.

For the engineering types, Webb Institute is a real bargain. All students double major in naval architure (hull design) and marine engineering (engine and mechanical systems) and graduates go into a wide variety of jobs. The school is over 100 years old and, as of a few years ago, had 100% job placement at graduation. All students receive a full tuition scholarship and participate in a paid, off-campus work program during January and February. It is a tiny school, admitting only 25 students per year, but it provide a first-class education, feels like a family and the setting, on Long Island Sound, is beautiful. The main building was the Wayne mansion in the Val Kilmer Batman movie (Batman Forever?), filmed while school was in session, to the delight of the students. There are also some athletic opportunities, especially sailing, as the school has its own yacht club.

Cooper Union, in New York City, is also a great bargain for fine arts/architecture. I think it is also tuition-free.

One caveat - all of the above are very competitive.

On an unrelated topic, my 4 children all attended schools in a very affluent, high-achieving district where it was the norm to start students late (almost all boys and many girls), in the hope that they would be the oldest, smartest, best athlete, biggest leader etc. I don't feel that it gave much of an advantage. If the kid was not ready to start, for a specific reason(s), that was different.

We have 3 boys and a girl, in that order, all of whom were the youngest in their class - sometimes by 2 years, and they all did very well and we would make the same decisions again (and all 4kids say the same). Two of the boys were just over the school-cutoff date and we let them go ahead. All were very successful athletes, both on the club and the varsity level, even though they were no where near the biggest. That being said, they are all 2-10 years out of college and I think that schools handle normal boy behaviors progressively worse than formerly. Certainly, the old-maid schoolteachers (that term was used, too) of my era were much more effective/understanding and they had no college degree, but a certificate from a one-year Normal School.

Anonymous said...

Well, first, VickyS and SteveH, I met no disrespect. Why do either of you find it to be insulting, what you interpreted me to say?

But yes, that is precisely what's I've taken away from your posts: no overarching theme of fixing "education" in any big sense, because that's not interesting to you, or the point anymore. The point in each case was "parental choice", over and over again, and the attitude was "any parental choice" was better than the schools choosing, but if other parents didn't have standards for their kids, that was fine with you.

It boils down to: give me the choice to do whatever I want, and then pay for it. No overarching demands of what society needs education for, or what education should provide society.

That was the opposite of Paul, who wants to solve the big picture problem, with or without technology (though he believes tech will support solving it.)

--Having no common assumptions, directions, or goals in education doesn't mean that there can't be any solution.

Um, this is absurd. We obviously don't agree on facts, and so there's no way for us to agree on much else. If you can't articulate a problem past "X is broken" you can't solve it. You may call that an interpretation, but I call that a fact, and without agreement there, the rest is meangingless.

Until you have common assumptions, direction or goals, you aren't building a solution to a problem.

SteveH said I got it fundamentally wrong, but then he reiterated the same position: it's okay if parents want whatever they want. That means it IS about you and your kid, because the fact that other parents want garbage for their kids is okey-dokey on the public dime is still something you're okay with. Same with VickyS--she said I've misrepresented, but where? She wants parental choice on taxpayer dime, and has said it's okay if there aren't really standards. In her comment, she says it's okay for them to learn unequal amounts. At least here, she allows for some minimal standards.

The idea that something has been co-opted and twisted, especially rather easily, and repeatedly, means it was open to corruption. It means it probably wasn't such a good idea in the first place, and it was fundamentally flawed. Holding on to the good bits doesn't change that.

Student A should not be penalized because they learn quickly. SRA's color coded reading is just mindnumbing seatwork to the better students, and forcing everyone to do all 500 assignments is madness. I hated SRA for that reason. Some should be allowed to skip. But if B is behind, going at his own pace isn't going to be enough for him to be able to read before he's 10. Removing the grade level doesn't change that time is moving forward, and the student is falling farther and farther behind the As of the world.

A and B learning as much as they can in 6 hours DOES NOT CUT IT. That's what KIPP, and DCP and the rest of the winning schools have shown: the struggling student CAN'T make it at their rate given ONLY the same amount of resources. So they expect more hours, demand more hours, and use more hours. Why? Because distance = rate * time.

It's not enough that B is challenged, if B is a struggling student. 5 hours of challenge might simply not be enough to get him to read, or to learn trig, or to write a reasonable essay.

Again, those are in my mind, established facts.

re: my goal: Through the lens of What does a Society Need Education For: govt sponsored education, whether compulsory or not, should be at a minimum, a comprehensive demanding liberal arts and sciences education. Standards for every one of those courses should exist. Standards for assessment should exist. Those standards should cover content and delivery. Moving away from fixed standards helps the struggling student least of all. My goal would be to re-educate society to understand the value of that liberal arts and sciences education. An actual education, with actual standards. Right now, they don't see it. In fact, lots of KTM doesn't see it. Catherine keeps posting about the growing inequality, and in group differences mattering. She keeps showing the connections of that lack of belief in a traditional liberals arts education to the inequality. And we're not talking a one room schoolhouse. We're talking about a time in US educational history when subjects were taught to everyone in grade levels, with tracking for rates, and high demands everywhere.