A harder case to make for boys' school in the TDSB

New Toronto District School Board Director Chris Spence is showing himself fearless in the face of controversy. But he’s got a hard case to make if he is going to convince Torontonians that a boys’ school is a good way to address underachievement.

As part of the his move to open the discussion, Dr. Leonard Sax, the executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, was invited to address Toronto parents and trustees last week.

It didn’t go over well.

Perhaps most scathing was Trustee Mari Ruka’s summary of the talk (see More below). (Trustee Rutka is infamous for her arguments against the separate nature of Africentric schools, saying that if the school board proceeded, it should, by the same logic, set up schools for students who are “fat” or “red-headed.”)

Several OISE graduates have also begun a Facebook string on the topic of boy’s schools.

Pointing to the fact that both populations face underachievement, Spence used the same arguments used for the Africentric school launched earlier this year in the TDSB. Learning styles, which is what the boys’ school advocates seem to centre on, are not the same as the cultural inheritance arguments put forward for Black-focused schools. The arguments for separation are blurrier because gender identities are blurrier. (Sax’s ill-received attempts at humour probably failed because they too predictably relied on gender stereotypes.).

Black-focused/Africentric schools are also open to all students – different again from Spence and Sax’s arguments of how (some) boys may need a “girl-free” environment.

As the parent of a son, I have often argued for more “boy-friendly” learning environments. However, unlike my stance on Africentric schools, I still wait to be convinced that he, and boys like him, would be best served in a single-sex school.

TDSB Trustee Mari Rutka’s report on Dr. Sax’s public talk on boys-only & single sex schools

From: Rutka, Mari
Sent: Friday, November 27, 2009 11:06 AM
To: Rutka, Mari
Subject: WSN – Dr. Sax on Single Sex Education
27 November, 2009
Dear Friends of Willowdale Schools,
Yesterday, our director, Dr. Chris Spence, arranged for trustees and
superintendents to hear from Dr. Leonard Sax, a leading proponent of
all-boys and all-girls schools. Dr. Sax is the head of an American
organization called the National Association for Single Sex Public
Education. He is a psychologist from Philadephia. Our session with Dr. Sax
lasted for over 3 hours. As promised, here is my report, and some
observations, on what he had to say.
Dr. Sax began by showing us statistics from Canada. In 1971, 68% of
university graduates were men and 32% were women. In 2007, 61 % are women
and 39% are men. Although he did not present evidence to show this was so,
he says the reason for this reversal is because boys are dropping out of
university to play video games. (I trust this was a somewhat jocular
attempt, but perhaps not).
Dr. Sax said that research indicates that the top 3 factors that predict
success in university are reading proficiency, study habits and how good
your grades are at age 15. There is a gap in the success rates regarding
these 3 factors between boys and girls, although not across all cultures.
Males from East Asian and South Asian backgrounds do not perform less well
on tests in this regard than girls do and, a bit later on, Dr. Sax brought
this up again, saying that young men are not lagging behind and continue to
outperform women in China, India and Pakistan. I would have to point out
here, however, that it might be beneficial to reflect about the status of
women in these countries as well.
There are grave social and economic consequences to the gender gap in
success, Dr. Sax maintained. He did not elaborate on the economic
consequences but did tell us that women who are better educated tend not to
marry men who aren’t as educated as they are. Men, on the other hand, will
marry “anyone”, he said, without regard to education. I am not sure what we
are meant to infer here about the discriminatory abilities of men and women,
but he went on to say that, currently, the fastest growing segment of the
population are those under 40 years of age who have never married and live
Another statistic that Dr. Sax shared with us is that women under the age
of 30 earn on average $5,000 more a year than the males in their cohort.
This would perhaps follow logically, I would guess, if more women are
graduating from university and taking jobs that require a university-level
Dr. Sax mentioned as well that there is a considerable rise among young
females in the incidence of eating disorders, anxiety, alcohol abuse and
self-mutilation (cutting). We might conclude, then, that there are pervasive
and profound difficulties being faced by all young people.
Dr Sax next gave us an example of how we could make the teaching of history
more engaging for boys and then how we could do the same for girls. Boys, he
said, are interested in doing, girls are interested in feeling. He used the
example of teaching, in Canadian history, about the War of 1812.
To teach the War of 1812 to boys, we need to start them in the middle of
the story at its most exciting part. We should focus on a key battle and
describe the weapons, the strategy, the real men who were involved. We
should get out maps, get them moving around, have them enact the parts of
the main leaders. (All of whom, I thought to myself, were men.) This kind of
stuff, he said, won’t interest girls.
To teach the War of 1812 to girls, he said, we should tell them to imagine
they lived at this time. How did people cook? How did people clean? What
clothes did they wear? How did they shop? Did they have makeup? What
happened when you were sick? What was childbirth like?
He said it doesn’t do any good to try to provide female role models from
that time if the main fame of those role models rests in their being the
wife of someone famous. Thus, American figures like Martha Washington or
Abigail Adams hold little appeal to girls, he said. But, Laura Secord is a
good example of someone who would hold appeal because she is someone who
went out and did something herself. But, I thought, doesn’t that rather show
that the idea of doing also holds appeal for girls?
I told Dr. Sax that one of the assignments I recall most clearly and most
enjoyed doing when I was in high school was a report on the Carthaginian
general, Hannibal, a brilliant military strategist who nearly conquered
Rome. He told me that only “talented” girls are interested in boy details
but that this is “atypical.”
Dr. Sax referenced Branksome Hall and Upper Canada College as examples of
excellent all-girls and all-boys schools respectively. He said that it
wasn’t fair that only parents who could afford $25,000-a-year tuition could
have access to all-girls or all-boys schools. I was thinking it wasn’t fair
that public schools only get $8,000 a year to spend on each student when
private schools can spend so much. Branksome and UCC are indeed excellent
schools, richly resourced and richly staffed. Is their excellence, though,
perhaps due to this (literal) richness and not to their traditional,
single-gendered format? Comparing the outcomes of one school to another,
when the one has 3 times as much to spend on each student as the other has,
hardly seems like a balanced comparison.
Dr. Sax said that single-gendered schools can be used to break down gender
stereotypes. Boys, he said, can be freer to be artists, linguists and
academics in a setting where there are not girls doing this and where doing
this becomes a girl thing. He acknowledged that single-gendered schools can
also bring out the worst in boys (increased bullying) and girls (cattiness),
but not if, he says, the schools are run properly. Of course bullying (in
both its physical and catty forms) can be found in co-educational schools,
but also not if the schools are run properly.
Sex differences in ability, he further acknowledged, are virtually
non-existent. The differences are in motivation. He also said that the
differences between boys and girls are most pronounced in terms of behaviour
and interests when they are young. Girls at the age of six all over the
world, he said, are mostly interested in drawing flowers, animals and
people. Boys of this age “typically” draw trucks, planes, ships and so on.
At this point, I began to reminisce about my own first grade year, which I
largely spent drawing pictures of submarines and ships, many of which
renderings my mother has saved. But then I already knew I was atypical. And
I guess I’ll admit it. I even like science fiction, something that boys
typically like but girls don’t. Maybe *I *should have gone to a boys’
school. But wait. I can’t. I’m not a boy. I get to learn about shopping.
Dr. Sax did say that some boys who are “atypical” actually do prefer
drawing flowers, animals and people too. But these boys, he pointed out,
also have a much higher incidence of allergies and eczema. He then pointed
out that it’s always the geeks and nerds with “pocket protectors” that are
holding the tissues and sneezing in movie and media portrayals. Does he mean
us to infer thereby that there is something physically sub-par about boys
who don’t want to draw trucks and that such boys are geeks and nerds? Of
course, this also made me think about my own husband, who has all his life
suffered from quite severe eczema and allergies. He has also been a star
athlete – playing hockey to the Junior A level, making it to the Junior
Olympics in track and field, leading his team to the Canadian college
football championships as the quarterback for Queen’s University. I don’t
believe he has ever owned a pocket protector. I guess he must be an atypical
atypical male.
We talked about who should go to the all-boys school. The school, Dr. Sax’s
talk indicated, will be structured to appeal to “typical” boys. If this is
the case, then how is an “atypical” boy, with or without allergies going to
thrive there and, in a setting where battles, weapons and strong males
prevail, feel comfortable drawing flowers, animals and people? Dr. Sax
described himself as an “atypical” male. He said when he was in high school,
he liked to do macramé. I wondered how he would fair in a school set up for
“typical” boys.
Dr. Sax said he was particularly pleased that we are thinking of opening
the school for young boys and not for secondary students. When they are
young is when it is important for the boys to be in an all boys environment.
The parents will choose to put them there, and, he said, they should not shy
away from doing so. If parents ask a young boy if he wants to go to an
all-boys school, he will say, and I quote, “do you think I’m a fag?” and
will want to remain with his neighbourhood friends. But parents should do
what they know is best for their sons and put them in the all-boys school.
Shortly after this, I left, though a few still remained behind to talk
further with Dr. Sax.
And I guess that just about sums it up. I think, in fact, from
conversations I have had with several of them, that a majority of the
trustees are currently in favour of opening two kindergarten to grade 3
(with eventual expansion up to grade 12) all-boys schools in September next
I continue to have concerns. We are all atypical in our own ways (I’m not
too fond of shopping, but I do like drawing flowers as well as submarines).
Each child is such a unique combination of so many factors that can affect
educational outcomes: date of birth in the year, order of birth in families,
economic circumstances, mobility, gender to be sure, cultural background,
parents’ educational background, family stability, learning styles,
abilities, interests, resilience and more. I worry when we become focused on
one factor so narrowly that an imbalance ends up being created with regards
to all the rest. When teaching is set up to appeal to stereotypes, what
happens to those who don’t fit? And, if the parents are the ones making the
choice about which boys go to an all-boys school, are we going to tell them
not to send them if they like drawing flowers or sneeze? What happens if
parents see this as a way to make their boys “typical” by eradicating a
tendency towards flowers, pocket protectors and macramé? It is hard not to
feel trepidation for a boy in a “typical” boys’ classroom who pulls out his
crochet hook in the midst of a discussion about battle strategies. How
comfortable would he feel asking about what it was like to cook, clean or
shop way back when?
I do not refute that we have a problem reaching some boys. I am still very
uncomfortable with making all-boys schools the solution to this
problem –though I would support putting into any school all of the
rich resourcing
and teaching staff that Dr. Spence is proposing be added to the boys’
school: extra arts and sports, instrumental music, third language
instruction, outdoor education opportunities, field trips, international
exchanges, parenting centres, childcare, after-school programs and the
latest technology. If the government and taxpayers were willing, I would be
more than happy to duplicate and surpass the rich resourcing and staffing of
both Branksome Hall and UCC.
I have asked Dr. Spence if we could also hear from Dr. Lise Eliot, a
neuroscientist and researcher, whose review of the most recent findings and
studies has led her to conclude that, while different kids learn
differently, it is possible to educate all of us together and that we
benefit from this interaction. I am hoping that some time with Dr. Eliot can
be arranged in the near future, including holding, as was done for Dr. Sax
this week, two sessions for parents and the general public. If this occurs,
I will let you know.


4 Responses to “A harder case to make for boys' school in the TDSB”

  1. I am not sure the guest presentation “did not go well”. I think Mari makes some very good points, but her selective deconstruction of the talk does not convince me that the basic arguement is flawed or that the topic or movement is a mistake. I think a school system is healthiest with the greatest variety and diversity. Parent choice is only useful when their are choices and I trust parents and educators to be involved in deciding if a child will benefit from alternative schools (as discussed here), neighbourhood schools, religious schools or even private schools.


  2. It sounds like this expert, and Mr. Spence, are spending time putting boys and girls into specific boxes with specific limitations.

    I think would be better to experience what my kids did in the younger grades — a program called “Boys and Girls Out of the Box” which helps kids to see beyond the boxes they get put into, by, well… “experts” such as these guys.

    I don’t think anyone is particularly well served by blanket statements like “boys learn through competition,” or words to that effect that have been attributed to Mr. Spence.

    For example, in the Grey Cup, a highly competitive event, the winning team required high amounts of co-operation for success. Maybe both boys and girls learn through co-operation, and some healthy competition can be a good thing too for character development.

    I think boys need better role models. I suggest spending more energy in helping fathers to become active in their schools — in school councils, events, teams, whatever. Then boys can learn the value of making a contribution to the community and the value of co-operation in making good things happen.


  3. Re: using UCC and Branksome as examples.Makes me question why the head of TDSB is planning to spend some of his taxpayer funded time at a local UCC lite.
    Interesting that CS accepts Howard Gardner’s ideas about different learning styles and still assumes all boys enviros are an answer.



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