Monday, July 12, 2010

Gender Gap for the Gifted in City Schools

Published: May 31, 2010

When the kindergartners at the Brooklyn School of Inquiry, one of New York City’s schools for gifted students, form neat boy-girl rows for the start of recess, the lines of girls reach well beyond the lines of boys.

A similar imbalance exists at gifted schools in East Harlem, where almost three-fifths of the students at TAG Young Scholars are girls, and the Lower East Side, where Alec Kulakowski, a seventh grader at New Explorations in Science and Technology and Math, considered his status as part of the school’s second sex and remarked, “It’s kind of weird and stuff.”

Weird or not, the disparity at the three schools is not all that different from the gender makeup at similar programs across the city: though the school system over all is 51 percent male, its gifted classrooms generally have more girls.

Around the city, the current crop of gifted kindergartners, for example, is 56 percent girls, and in the 2008-9 year, 55 percent were girls.

Educators and experts have long known that boys lag behind girls in measures like high school graduation rates and college enrollment, but they are concerned that the disparity is also turning up at the very beginning of the school experience.

Why more girls than boys enter the programs is unclear, though there are some theories. Among the most popular is the idea that young girls are favored by the standardized tests the city uses to determine admission to gifted programs, because they tend to be more verbal and socially mature at ages 4 and 5 when they sit for the hourlong exam.

“Girls at that age tend to study more, and the boys kind of play more,” said Linda Gratta, a parent at the Anderson School on the Upper West Side, one of the most selective. “But it’s a mixed bag. The day of the test, you could be the smartest boy in the world and just have a bad day.” She said that Timothy, her first-grade son, had approximately 10 boys and 18 girls in his class.

Biases and expectations among adults are often in play when determining which children count as gifted, and fewer boys appear to end up in gifted programs nationally. A 2002 study by the National Academy of Sciences reported that boys were “overrepresented in programs for learning disabilities, mental retardation and emotional disturbance, and slightly underrepresented in gifted programs,” said Bruce A. Bracken, a professor at the College of William & Mary who wrote one of the two exams that the city uses to test gifted children. He said the implications of the study were “disturbing.”

Dr. Bracken’s assessment, which makes up 25 percent of a child’s gifted score in the city, has been field tested for gender bias, and during a recent round of testing in Virginia, no gender differences in the score were recorded. But the longer Otis-Lennon Ability Test, the other 75 percent of the gifted exam, is “more verbal than some of the other tests,” which could play to girls’ strengths, said David F. Lohman, a professor and testing expert at the University of Iowa.

The city’s Department of Education mandated the use of the two tests for admission to gifted programs beginning in 2008; before that, individual schools and districts each devised its own criteria. These typically included a mix of standardized intelligence tests, interviews, observation and, for later grades, class work. The additional leeway in admissions sometimes led to an effort to create gender balance in classes.

“Up until about five years ago, there was more of a conscious effort to balance by gender,” said Estelle Schmones, who retired last year as a gifted teacher at Public School 110 in Manhattan. Like other educators and parents, Ms. Schmones noted that the number of girls in some gifted programs had been creeping up over the past several years.

David Cantor, the press secretary for the Education Department, said that any role the tests might play in contributing to the gender gap was not known, because the city did not tally the gender of those who took or passed the test, only those who enrolled in gifted classes. Still, Mr. Cantor said, “A good test for giftedness should be able to control for differences in what children have been exposed to, and for the early verbal development we see more often in girls.”

The imbalance stands in contrast with the gender makeup of the eight high schools, including Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School, that use the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test to select students. All have more boys than girls, in keeping with research that shows that boys tend to catch up with girls, especially in mathematics, through middle school and, at the high end of the achievement spectrum, surpass them. (La Guardia High School, the prestigious school for music, art and the performing arts, has three girls for every boy.)

Whatever might be keeping young boys from entering gifted programs at equal rates might also be what can cause stumbles once they get in. For some of the boys, “their social and emotional development is not at the same level as their intellectual development,” said Donna Taylor, the principal of the Brooklyn School of Inquiry. She estimated that she spent about half her day helping her kindergarten and first-grade boys as they ran into trouble with issues like collaboration, self-control and sharing.

The difference could be observed one day last week in the lunchroom, where a cluster of boys sat at one end of a table, fooling around until one of them spilled a carton of chocolate milk. The girls sat calmly at the other end, eating meatballs without a stain on their sundresses.

Because the children are extremely bright, correcting their behavior sometimes comes with a twist.

During recess on Wednesday, Sidney, a kindergartner, got angry when Benjamin, a first grader, grabbed away a ball he was playing with. When Ms. Taylor got the boys together to talk over their feelings, Sidney tried to grab the ball back.

“Have you heard the expression, two wrongs don’t make a right?” she asked Sidney.

“Three lefts make a right,” he replied.

Toi Ferguson, a kindergarten teacher at the school in southern Brooklyn, noted how intellectual preferences show up when the children — 10 boys and 18 girls — get to select from among a variety of activities.

On Wednesday, four of the boys went to the corner to build an intricate highway structure and a factory from wooden blocks, while two others built trucks. One girl helped them, by creating signs on Post-its to stick on the buildings.

Another kindergarten girl, Tamar Greenberg, stood to announce to the class her own activity, a Hebrew lesson. “We’re moving to the green table because it’s too distracting with the computers” in the back, she told the other children.

On a roster, she neatly recorded the names of the three children who joined her for the lesson: Skyler, Isabelle and Bayla. “No boys were interested,” Tamar said.

Terry W. Neu, an assistant professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut who studies achievement among gifted boys, said the gender gap in enrollment pointed to a larger issue in the education of young boys: the tendency for modern classrooms, in their growing emphasis on testing and literacy, to play to girls’ strengths and interests, not the propensity of young boys to think spatially and mathematically, through active play and hands-on activities.

“Sitting still, that’s where a lot of our gifted guys get into trouble,” he said, adding, “If they are not moving, they are thinking about moving.”

Indeed, Ms. Taylor has filled a room in her spacious school with wooden blocks and designated it the block room, in part to reach the boys. A hands-on science lab has scorpions, turtles, snakes and chicks, which boys and girls both seem to love.

Scouring the results of her testing through the year, she said she saw no clear difference between boys’ and girls’ achievement. “The trick is to keep them happily occupied,” she said.

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