A boys' school in Dallas
Leroy Tamfu wakes up around 5:00 AM on school days so that he can catch the bus from his home near Garland, Texas. It’s a 75-minute commute by bus one-way from his home to the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy (BOMLA), an all-boys public school in South Dallas. But he says it’s worth it.
“I love the comradery and brotherhood at BOMLA,” he told me when we spoke recently via Zoom. “I’ve never experienced that anywhere else. It pushes me to do better.” Beyond being an exemplary student, Leroy relaunched the school debate team and helped his team to qualify for the Urban Debate National Championship last year and the previous year. He also restarted the school’s mock trial team (Leroy hopes to become a lawyer).
The school does well. The four-year graduation rate for the school is 99%, significantly better than the Dallas district-wide average of 81 percent. Ninety-five percent of the students at BOMLA score proficient on reading, which compares favorably to the district’s average of 54% and the statewide average of 50%; likewise, 96% score proficient in science, again comparing well to the district average of 64% and the state average of 60%. Nationwide, low-income students tend to do less well in school compared with more affluent students, but 81% of students at BOMLA qualify for free or reduced-price student lunches.
I know Leroy’s school. Back when the school first launched in the fall of 2011, the founding principal, Nakia Douglas, hired me to lead two days of professional development for the teachers, sharing what I have learned about best practices for all-boys schools from my visits now to more than 490 schools over the past 22 years. He also assigned all the teachers to read my book Boys Adrift. I have returned to the school to lead six additional days of professional development in the years since.
BOMLA is a school of choice within the Dallas public school system. I asked Leroy whether he thought coed schools could achieve the same success as BOMLA. “Coed schools do not have the same qualities that BOMLA has,” he said. “We [the students] understand each other on a completely different level as young males. You don’t get competition like this anywhere else. You can’t do this at a coed school.”
I think Leroy makes a good point regarding competition. Every student at BOMLA is assigned to one of four houses, and the houses compete in everything: academics, athletics, even hallway behavior. Most boys enjoy that kind of competition. But I have found that house competition doesn’t work as well at coed schools. If Sonia and Vanessa are best friends, and they are assigned to different teams, Sonia may not want to beat Vanessa. She might even let Vanessa win. But if Justin and Jason are best friends, and you put them on opposing teams for a football game, Justin will happily knock down Jason on the opening kickoff. He might even go out of his way to knock down Jason, the boy he knows, rather than the big boy he doesn’t know. And Jason will get back up and say “You think that was a good hit? I’ll get you better next time.” Boys are comfortable competing against their friends. Girls prefer to compete with their friends against people they don’t know. That’s why team-competitive formats, with random assignment of students to teams, often fizzle at coed schools but can work well to promote a culture of healthy competition at boys’ schools like BOMLA.
There has been much buzz recently about what some have called “the boy crisis.” I wrote about it myself in a post for the IFS blog. Girls now get better grades than boys do, in every subject, in every grade K-12. Women at university in the United States now outnumber men by roughly 60/40. Richard Reeves, in his well-reviewed book Of Boys and Men, suggests that one fix for the problem would be to enroll boys in kindergarten one year later than girls, reprising a suggestion I made 22 years ago (and which I recently revisited for the IFS blog). However, Reeves dismisses the idea of boys’ schools, citing a 2014 meta-analysis that found no evidence that boys do better, on average, in boys’ schools. But that really comes as no surprise. As I noted in a commentary for Education Week 18 years ago, simply putting boys in a room without girls accomplishes nothing good by itself, and often leads to catastrophic mayhem—if teachers have received no training in how to manage and lead the all-boys classroom. The all-boys format creates the opportunity to do things differently: to teach the content differently, to deploy team-competitive formats schoolwide, and to create a culture in which it’s cool for the top athlete to also be a gentleman and a scholar. But none of that happens automatically just by removing the girls.
The single-sex format is rare in American public schools. Fewer than one-half of one percent of American public schools are single-sex. As a result, there is widespread confusion and ignorance about the format. The New York Times Sunday magazine published a cover story on single-sex education in American public schools. The reporter concluded her article by expressing her opinion that students who are enrolled at single-sex schools will not understand “what it means to be American.” I would have liked to remind her that President John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby Kennedy, President George H. W. Bush, his son George W. Bush, former Vice President Al Gore, and Senator John Kerry are all graduates of boys’ high schools. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that Rosa Parks (of Montgomery bus boycott fame), Madeleine Albright (first woman to be Secretary of State), Condoleezza Rice (first woman to be National Security Advisor), Drew Gilpin Faust (first woman president of Harvard), Sally Ride (first American woman to fly in space), Nancy Pelosi (first woman to be Speaker of the House), and Lady Gaga all graduated from girls’ high schools.
The single-gender format offers some unique opportunities. But it also comes with major baggage. Ten years ago, when I was a more outspoken advocate for boys’ public schools, the ACLU repeatedly attacked me personally and also filed nuisance complaints against public schools offering single-sex classrooms—complaints which a federal judge dismissed as “absurd” and “not supported by law, fact, or logic.” Public school districts are understandably hesitant to consider the single-sex format in an era in which consultants advise teachers not to even use the words “girls” or “boys” because those words reify the gender binary. Instead of “Boys and girls, listen up!” you are now supposed to say, “Everybody listen up!”
The good news is that most of the benefits of the all-boys schools can be achieved in a coed classroom if teachers have appropriate training. For example, I have helped to deploy the team-competitive format in coed schools successfully, by having the girls’ team compete against the boys, in the classroom as well as on the playing field (the choice of sports varies, depending on the age of the students). Girls like to beat the boys, and boys don’t like to be beaten. Every student is motivated, and every student works harder. The school still has to find the courage to use the words “girls” and “boys,” but a minority of public schools can still find that courage.
So even if we are not likely to see a resurgence of boys’ schools anytime soon, I am hopeful that at least some districts will summon the nerve to train their teachers about why gender matters. The pretense that male and female are mere social constructs is an ideological claim detached from reality, and ignoring reality is never a good strategy in the long run. The best way to get boys excited about Jane Eyre and Emily Dickinson is different from the best way to get girls excited about Jane Eyre and Emily Dickinson. The best way to get girls excited about computer coding and physics is different from the best way to get boys excited about computer coding and physics. The more teachers understand about these differences, the better students are likely to do in all these areas.
If you gave me a choice between having more boys’ schools, vs. having more teachers trained in gender-aware instructional strategies in coed schools, I would vote for more teacher training in coed schools. Because gender matters.
Leonard Sax MD PhD is the author of Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Sifferences (Doubleday), as well as Boys Adrift: the Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men (Basic Books). More information is at www.leonardsax.com.