Ruel B. Reid, Contributor
Defining the Problem
ACCORDING TO Miller (1991), the Caribbean is one of the few regions in the world where there are more illiterate men than women. In 1999, the illiteracy figures were 25.9 per cent for men and 14.1 per cent for women.
Although there have been remarkable improvements since then, the males are still lagging behind the females, with the most recent estimates based on calculated figures by Jamaica Adult Literacy Survey being 10.6 per cent for males and 6.5 per cent females in 2008.
More recently, ministers of education from across the Commonwealth have raised the issue of boys' underachievement and poor attendance at school, which is a growing phenomenon in all regions.
This subject has raised heated debate as well as a number of conflicting hypotheses (Jha & Kelleher 2006).
The debate started around the early 1970s and came to the fore in the mid-90s.
The Grade One Individual Learning Profile (GILP), a diagnostic test, which replaced the Grade One Readiness Inventory (GRI), is taken by children upon entry into primary school from early-childhood institutions.
In the Grade Four Literacy Test, the results are also telling. Seventy per cent of the students achieved mastery of the test, with boys averaging 59 per cent and girls 81 per cent.
The boys recorded an even poorer performance on the numeracy test, averaging 36 per cent when compared with 55 per cent for girls.
Data on the performance of students on the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) also show comparable results, with girls receiving consistently higher scores than boys.
The GSAT facilitates placement and continued development of students at the secondary level.
In 2009, a total of 49,648 students, representing approximately 91 per cent of the grade-six cohort, sat the examination.
The table above shows girls outperforming boys in all five areas of the Grade Six Achievement Test.
A comparison of student performance in primary and preparatory schools indicate that the latter students are achieving better results.
However, boys continue to underachieve when compared to the girls.
Additionally, data aggregated by school type in a cohort of schools demonstrated that girls outperformed boys on academic tests in public primary and all-age schools; while at high and preparatory schools, the boys performed better at academic and cognitive tests, albeit not significantly so.
Although the boys and girls are receiving similar cognitive scores, there is disparate academic performance.
According to Maureen Samms-Vaughan (2001), this could be attributed to different experiences of male and female children in primary and all-age schools, a teaching technique or approach, which facilitates girls or greater vulnerability of boys when exposed to similar circumstances as girls.
It is safe to conclude that the teaching experiences at the primary and all-age levels need to be reviewed and adjusted in order to support boys in realising their fullest potential.
The poor performance of boys in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate examination is also worrying, as the boys are particularly at risk.
In 2009, of the 163,245 subject entries for public secondary school students at the general and technical proficiency levels, 60.6 per cent were for females and 39.4 per cent for males.
The statistics also revealed that the males sat fewer subjects and had a higher failure rate than their female counterparts.
Therefore, there is no surprise that there is a corresponding 70:30 participation of females in tertiary education compared to males.
Possible Factors Impacting Boys Underachievement
It is generally accepted that a child's performance is determined by factors both inside and outside of school.
Jules (2010) supports this position by stating that "male underachievement in the region is only a symptom of deep-seated differentials in society and cannot be resolved in the arena of the school alone".
The main question for decision or policymakers and other educational officials, however, is what can be done within the school system to improve boys' performance, thereby closing the achievement gap?
1 Boys are underachieving in education not only when compared to their female counterparts, but also against objective standards of performance for their peer group.
2 Gender achievement differences are evident from the earliest years of school life.
3 Boys' early socialisation and society's expectations about male behaviour have retarded their academic performance.
4 There is lower attendance levels for male than female students, especially in primary and junior high schools, as well as secondary and technical high schools.
5 Boys in preparatory schools generally achieve at higher levels of performance than their counterparts in government-owned institutions.
6 Negative school and home environment are key contributory factors to male underachievement.
Strategies for closing the gap and winning back our boys
When male students endure academic underachievement, a major consequence is that they become at risk and are more prone to suffer from a variety of negative factors such as illiteracy, dropping out of school, crime, substance abuse, drug trafficking, unemployment, poverty and suicide. At-risk students need help and specific strategies should be designed to empower them (Superville, 1999).
Boys' underachievement is a result of a 'complex interplay of forces' both at home and school (USAID, 2005).
Case studies conducted in countries all over the world, inclusive of Jamaica, reveal that schools can make a difference.
Closing the achievement gap will require the commitment and dedication of the school leadership team and staff.
We also need to create a culture where high expectations are the norm, where achievement is celebrated, and where teaching and learning techniques are continually improved on.
No one approach will lead to success. Successful schools are those that utilise appropriate strategies to suit their own situations.
It also requires exploring in depth aspects of 'underachievement' in order to understand the complexity of the problem along with its varied gender dimensions and to take risks in developing innovative approaches to address them.
Closing the underachievement performance gap can be a daunting task.
The challenge will not be addressed by token efforts.
The solution requires major changes and investments in instruction as well as infrastructural facilities in schools.
It will also require major investments in time and effort in working with families, non-school organisations and the wider community in eliminating the deficits that boys currently are experiencing.
The ultimate goal of any educational reform programme should be to improve the quality of the education system and raise the bar and benefit all learners, both male and female (USAID, 2005).
Ruel B. Reid is a veteran
educator and the principal of Jamaica College. Send feedback to
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Table 3: Performance in the Grade Six Achievement Test by gender