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Closing the Achievement Gap: Does Your Curriculum Support Boys and Girls?

by David Chadwell, Cairo American College, Cairo, Egypt

There is an article every week about girls and STEM/STEAM. We read about a new program or after school activity that is being tried or new data indicating that an achievement gap between boys and girls still exists. Occasionally there are articles about boys and literacy. What do we do with all of this information?

The assessment culture of today’s educational world leads to an overwhelming amount of data. Sometimes, we look at the overall numbers and move on, but disaggregating data into subgroups is critical to understand how curriculum is being received by all groups of students. Four subgroups are essential, three are common: socio-economic status, ethnicity, and English Language Learners. And the fourth? Gender. Yes, disaggregating data into gendered subgroups can provide insights into teaching and learning. All schools should disaggregate data into gendered subgroups, and all teachers should summarize their classroom data to include gendered subgroups. Questioning the data and discussing any potential implications will improve everyone’s teaching and strengthen learning. Enrollment patterns, classroom student achievement, and school-wide trends are three ways to access enlightening information.

1. Enrollment Patterns

Enrollment patterns of mathematics and science courses will show interest of students, which is relevant for the STEM/STEAM conversation. Typically, boys tend to enroll in higher level of mathematics courses and physics courses. What is the ratio in your courses? If there is a difference, you can ask yourself: Is this difference large enough to matter? Is this difference a concern for us? What might cause this difference?

Follow-up can include interviewing students who are enrolled in these courses (why are they enrolled and what drew them to these courses) and students who are not enrolled (why they enrolled in the courses they chose, what drew them to these courses, and why did they not consider the other courses). Information from these interviews and the overall data will lead to discussions about how courses are described and presented to students, as well as teacher bias. It is important to know that ignoring this type of conversation could perpetuate an enrollment gap.

2.  Classroom Student Achievement

Classroom student achievement is the key area for subgroup data. Examining performance variation on different types of assignments will cause teachers to reconsider how the assignments are designed and delivered, as well as the criteria used for evaluation. Quick questions can include: Who turns in their assignments on time? Who formats the assignments correctly? What is the performance distribution?

If there are large enough variations between boys and girls, then assignments should be critiqued as to how they are created by the teacher and perceived by the student. For example, when some teachers questioned why students, particularly boys, did not complete or fully follow directions on a recent project, they decided to bullet instructions for the next project. Further, each day, the teachers asked students to indicate which step they were working on along the process. In the end, those students, particularly boys, who tended to have incomplete assignments were more on track, focused and complete. Changes in the structure, explanation, or processing of an assignment can provide the necessary scaffolding for a given group of students without impeding other groups.

3. School-wide Trends

Finally, school wide trends can provide macro level curricular questions. If there are large scale trends across a school or within grade levels or subject areas, important pedagogical or content questions can be asked. For example, we examined our On-Demand writing data and discovered that we had a consistent performance gap: grades 1 – 5 of all three genres in all categories, favored girls. We began by noticing this gap within each grade level and then across the school as a summary. Currently, our grade level teams are asking ourselves more questions about how lessons are structured, what specific expectations are communicated to students, how duration of writing is scaffolded, and what writing topics are encouraged. At the macro level, we are discussing the progression of writing expectations and if/when certain skills should be developed within our students.

Gathering gendered subgroup data allows teachers insight into how information is processed and learned differently by boys and girls. Nonetheless, teachers have to be very careful not to fall into traps of stereotyping and overgeneralizing. Acknowledging the potential disparity observed provides motivation to examine practice to better meet the needs of all students. Only when examining disaggregated data can one gather this information. Each set of data can highlight a different element to the puzzle of improving student achievement.

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