One of the biggest debates raging in education policy today is whether schools of choice are serving their fair share of the hardest-to-educate students or abandoning them to traditional public schools.
I have been more willing than most education reformers to acknowledge that some degree of selection bias is inevitable in a system of choice. The parents who seek out options for their children are, by their very nature, different than parents who do not, and this will likely have an impact on the academic performance of their children.
Furthermore, I have been happy to defend some degree of selectivity, both explicit and implicit. I support exam schools, for example. High-achieving students, especially those growing up in poverty, have not been well served by our traditional public school system, and I believe they deserve a place to go to school where they can learn to their full potential.
Still, wherever you stand on these debates, it’s certainly worth knowing whether the demographics of schools of choice match those of the larger community. This has driven many rigorous analyses of charter school populations, such as the proportion of their students belonging to different racial groups, receiving special education services, or still learning to speak English.
One demographic variable that has received relatively little attention, however, is gender. Which is strange. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that girls are doing dramatically better than boys in our education system today. That is especially the case when it comes to college going and college completion. It is not unusual to find colleges where 60 percent or more of the graduates are female. These disparate outcomes are even having an impact on America’s dating and marriage trends.
So it struck me as a worthy question to ask: Are charter schools and other schools of choice serving their fair share of boys and young men? In Washington, D.C., we have a ready source of data to answer the question, thanks to the school equity reports launched recently by the DC Public Charter School Board and DC Public Schools (DCPS).
I dug into the data, and here’s what I found. These are the schools in Washington where 60 percent or more of the students are female:
What’s remarkable is that every single school on this list is a school of choice—either a public charter school or a DCPS magnet. They are also all high schools (or middle school-high school combos), save for Excel Academy, D.C.’s first all-girls public school. They are also some of the highest-performing schools in the city.
So where are all of the young men? No doubt, many have dropped out of school. (Sixty-eight percent of girls in D.C. graduate on time, versus just 55 percent of the boys.) But it’s also the case that some high schools are imbalanced in the other direction. Sadly, that includes Washington’s various schools for kids in trouble, such as the juvenile detention center, Next Step Public Charter School, and Maya Angelou. But it also includes several of D.C.’s large comprehensive high schools: Cardozo (64 percent male), Roosevelt at McFarland (61 percent), and Coolidge (56 percent), as well as Phelps, D.C.’s only selective career technical education school (62 percent).
It’s not hard to explain the gender imbalance. Girls outscore boys on most standardized tests, so exam schools will inevitably admit more females. If they look at teacher recommendations and discipline records, it’s not surprising that more girls make the cut. It could also be that more young men are attracted to the athletic programs at the large high schools, or to CTE initiatives at a place like Phelps. (Worth noting: D.C.’s selective-admissions STEM school, McKinley, is 54 percent female.)
Whatever is driving these trends, they are certainly worth knowing. And they might merit a public policy response, such as extra funding for schools with a large proportion of male students, or even affirmative action for boys at schools like Banneker (something that’s being contemplated by Muriel Bowser and Kaya Henderson’s Empowering Males of Color initiative).
Where does this leave me? I continue to stand with the strivers, the low-income kids who are most dedicated to learning and willing to work hard. But the notion that male strivers are few and far between leaves me despondent. What can we do to keep more boys on the path to achievement long before high school? I welcome your thoughts and ideas.
– Michael J. Petrilli
This first appeared on Flypaper