Day 3
The gender imbalance

Story by Teri Pecoskie

Teri Pecoskie is an award-winning multimedia journalist and The Spectator's education reporter. She also co-authored the landmark BORN: A Code Red Project series, which was awarded the country's highest investigative journalism honour in 2012.

Teri has covered issues related to school achievement since she started at The Spectator in 2010.

Photographs by John Rennison
Web design by Pete Smaluck

Published April 15, 2014.

How we did it

Interactive map: Find your school's scores


Paul Denomme has a problem. His boys are falling behind.

At Denomme’s school, Cathy Wever, boys aren’t having the same success as girls on provincial tests. They haven’t for years, especially when it comes to reading and writing.

“I think we want all of our students to be engaged and we want them to be learning at their best,” says the principal of the Wentworth Street school.

Denomme isn’t the only one asking that question. Across the city, province, and even the globe, boys have fallen behind girls in achievement, particularly when it comes to literacy – a skill necessary for learning in any subject.

It’s not a new trend.

According to a 2009 research paper from Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office, girls’ superiority in reading and writing has been “a widely observed, relatively static pattern” for at least the last four decades.

There are rare instances of boys performing similarly to girls in literacy, the paper adds, but there are no reported studies in which boys performed better than girls in reading and writing.

The Spectator’s analysis of six years of standardized test scores at Hamilton’s Catholic and public elementary schools backs that up.

Take the nine schools – Catholic and public – for which all the gender-based data was available.

In those schools, the pass rate for girls was higher than that for boys on at least 70 per cent of EQAO tests over the past six years. In reading and writing, it was higher still – with girls coming out on top at least 82 per cent of the time.

The board-level results are even less promising. Since 2008, the pass rate for girls has been higher than that for boys in almost every subject on every Grade 3 and 6 EQAO test at both the Catholic and public school boards.

“I personally see it as a major, major issue,” says Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board chair, Pat Daly. “We have done all kinds of creative things, thanks to the good work of our administration and principals and teachers, and have made some headway. But, in saying that, the gap is still unacceptable.”

What’s interesting about this particular challenge is that, unlike differences in overall achievement, it crosses social and economic strata.

That is, the gap in the percentage of boys and girls meeting the provincial standard at the city’s most advantaged schools is comparable to the gap at less advantaged schools, although outcomes at those schools are, in general, worse.

Daly says his board identified the lag in boys’ achievement as a challenge close to 20 years ago. He and his fellow trustees have been calling on the province and education ministers ever since to recognize the issue and provide resources.

In short, he knows he needs help.

“I think it needs to be said that this is more than any one school or school board can do on their own.”

The percentage of students at the provincial standard, on average, from 2008-13.
R - reading, W - writing, M - math

Principal Paul Denomme wonders why the boys at Cathy Wever school are behind in literacy. It's a question that confounds educators around the world.

Alittle more than five years ago, the EQAO recruited some of Ontario’s top education experts to study the differences in literacy achievement between boys and girls.

Their findings were clear-cut.

Girls were shown to have a consistent and significant advantage over boys when it comes to reading and writing. And it’s happening across borders – in other countries, cultures and languages as well.

What the researchers couldn’t nail down, however, was an explanation for the differences. They also found the interventions or strategies that might successfully address them were largely unknown.

Since then, there’s little progress to report.

“There’s no doubt that it’s happening,” says Don Klinger, one of the study co-authors. “The question you’re asking is ‘why?’ And that’s the answer nobody has.”

Klinger is associate dean of graduate studies for the faculty of education at Queen’s University in Kingston. He also works closely with the EQAO as a researcher and consultant.

While Klinger can’t shed much light on what is driving the gap in achievement between boys and girls, he’s happy to offer some insight on what isn’t.

As far as he and his research partners can tell, the disparities aren’t rooted in student attitudes. “Boys dislike writing,” he explains. “End of story.” Regardless of whether they are high or low achievers.

Student success

A team of researchers from Queen’s University found that a school culture that focuses on learning for all students was an important factor for student success. Here are some of the elements that contribute to such a climate:

  • High academic, social and behavioural expectations;
  • A clear focus on instruction, which involves the use of a variety of teaching methods to meet students’ unique needs;
  • Strong role models to whom students can relate;
  • Strong educational leadership from principals, and teachers with high-level skills;
  • Engaged parents;
  • A positive and caring school community.

  • People also talk about what Klinger terms “the feminization” of the curriculum, or the idea that classroom teaching and assessment is slanted towards girls.

    There’s no evidence of that either, he says.

    “We probably have more male teachers now in elementary school than we did a while ago, especially at the elementary level, but it hasn’t made a difference.”

    Magdalena Janus, an expert in early childhood education, has an alternative explanation as to why boys don’t do as well as girls on EQAO tests.

    It could be genetics.

    As a gender, says the McMaster University professor, boys are generally more vulnerable. They have less genetic backup for certain faults and failures, which is why they tend to show up more often in a number of childhood disorders.

    That could end up influencing the way we’ve learned to socialize boys and work with them, says Janus – at home, for instance, or in class. Maybe it spills over into their achievement.

    While genetics are a factor, however, they’re not deterministic. That is, boys aren’t automatically in line for lower scores.

    If they were, says Janus, you wouldn’t see any men succeeding, which is obviously not the case.

    “You really have to experience a bunch of other factors in order for this to translate into some difficulty,” she says.

    AUDIO: Public school board chair Jessica Brennan weighs in on the differences in achievement between boys and girls

    Sarah Brown sees a difference between the genders in her class.

    The boys gravitate to math and numbers, says the Grade 3 teacher, while the girls are more into reading and writing.

    The girls, she adds, will sit still and get involved in their work, “and the boys generally like to be active – so not always engaged.”

    Brown’s been teaching awhile, but it’s her first year at Guardian Angels, a Waterdown school bursting at the seams.

    Compared to other schools, the boys there have been successful when it comes to EQAO tests. But they still don’t pass as often as the girls.

    Since 2008, the girls at Guardian Angels have outperformed the boys on two-thirds of the Grade 3 tests. In Grade 6, the differences were even more pronounced, with the girls having a higher pass rate 90 per cent of the time.

    “I wouldn’t say it’s a problem in so many words, but it’s definitely something that needs to be addressed,” Brown says.

    The question is, how?

    For Brown, it means doing whatever she can to engage her students. This year, for instance, she stocked her classroom library with books about hockey in a deliberate attempt to get her boys to read more.

    They’ve turned out to be a big hit.

    “Every class is different, so you have to work with the dynamics of your class and the interests of your class,” Brown says. “That’s how I look at it.”

    The percentage of students at the provincial standard, on average, from 2008-13.
    R - reading, W - writing, M - math

    Gender Differences

    In schools all across Hamilton, girls tend to outperfrom boys on EQAO tests.
    Scroll over the map to see some of these differences.

    The numbers represent percentage of students at the provincial standard, on average, from 2008-2013.

    Brown isn’t the only one who brings up engagement.

    In interviews with The Spectator, educators and officials said almost universally that targeting boys’ specific interests is a big part of narrowing the gap.

    “Engagement in school for the boys is a big strategy,” says Dave Hansen, a superintendent at the Catholic board. “Finding the right reading material for boys, male role model teachers ...”

    But Klinger, the Queen’s prof, isn’t so sure.

    “Most of our research is suggesting it’s not about special interventions,” he says. “A struggling reader, whether it’s a boy or a girl, needs the same thing.”

    John Malloy, the public board director, understands Klinger’s point. Like Hansen, he knows engagement is important, but he also thinks the issue is more complex.

    Dave Hansen, HWCDSB Superintendent

    “I do believe that the boys need to be engaged, obviously, in order to achieve,” he says.

    But it’s not as simple as saying boys learn one way and girls another.

    “Whether they’re boys or girls, if we’re not starting with what you are interested in, if we’re not building the lessons around that passion, then we may lose the kids before we even get down the road.”

    Malloy appears to be willing to put his money where his mouth is. In a recent meeting, he asked high school principals to consider offering special programs that would allow kids in different grades to work together on personalized projects.

    For example, if a group of students wanted to find ways to solve world hunger, a semester-long program could be designed around that goal, incorporating subjects such as geography, history and math.

    “It’s thinking differently about course delivery,” he said in an interview with The Hamilton Community News at the time.

    Klinger sees what Malloy is getting at. In fact, this type of differentiated instruction is something he says is common in schools where there’s little difference between boys’ and girls’ achievement.

    In his experience, the approach at those schools was much more “everybody can do what’s important to them.” So if the boys wanted to get involved in the arts, for instance, it was an option.

    “There weren’t boy and girl activities, there were just student activities,” Klinger explains. “There was a real attempt in a couple of the schools to really pursue the passion that you have regardless of your gender.”

    There were other consistencies as well.

    Klinger and his research partners found that where high expectations, strong educational leadership, parent engagement and other factors were present, it often contributed to a school culture which enabled all students – boys and girls – to succeed.

    The findings, he stresses, are preliminary.

    But they do provide a foundation for future work on the causes of achievement gaps, and even, potentially, their solutions.

    She Said, He said

    Sometimes educators and researchers clash over what they deem the most effective interventions for students. Consider, for instance, what a local principal and an academic had to say about improving reading skills in boys:

    “What we’ve done is target some areas like our book room ... For boys, it would be non-fiction. A lot of stuff with bullets, a lot of graphics. Boys don’t really like that fictional fantasy type of thing.”

    Sue Verrelli, principal, St. Patrick Catholic Elementary School

    “The whole idea that boys read non-fiction more is a mistake and an error and a problem. What we actually find is it’s the weakest readers that read non-fiction, because they can read the pictures.”

    Don Klinger, professor of education, Queen’s University

    Don Klinger, Professor of Education, Queen's University

    “I think we owe it to society to make every attempt to do that,” says Klinger. “Do we need to get everyone to the same level? No. But we need to get everyone to a level where opportunities are available to the students.

    “I think what we want to do is minimize lost opportunities down the road and I think that’s what we’ve got to really make sure we’re doing ... (making sure) that everybody has a chance to get what they need to be successful and have options for when they finish school.

    “To me, that’s the real value.”

    Teri Pecoskie

    The Hamilton Spectator

    Want to know how you would do on EQAO? Try our interactive test.

    Grade 3 Math

    1. Look at the two pattern rules below.

    Start at 1 and add 3 each time.

    Start at 1 and add 4 each time.

    Which of these numbers is in both patterns?

    2. Mike has a 3-D figure. It has 5 faces and 5 vertices.

    Which figure does Mike have?

    How we did it

    Last fall, The Spectator obtained six years of standardized test results from Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office. That information included the percentage of students who met the provincial standard in reading, writing and math at each of Hamilton’s 143 Catholic and public elementary schools between 2008 and 2013. On top of that, the data was broken down by grade level and gender — that is, the percentage of boys and girls that met the Ontario standard on any given test.

    The Spectator then cross-referenced the results with socioeconomic information obtained from the Ministry of Education. The school-level data was calculated using information from Statistics Canada’s 2006 census, the Ontario School Information System, which tracks student population characteristics, and postal codes collected by individual schools.

    For the purposes of this investigation, The Spectator analyzed results at those schools for which all data was available. The EQAO omitted data in cases where there were fewer than 15 test takers — or, in the case of the 2012-13 results, fewer than 10 — in order to protect against the potential disclosure of students’ personal information. The office recently changed its omission rules to align with ministry standards for data suppression.

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    Click here to comment on this story

    By Rosemary | APRIL 15, 2014 10:34 AM

    Unfortunately, schools and some educators dismiss it too readily. Our son was in a school where only two children reached the provincial standard in grade 3. When we questioned those results and asked what resources would be used to deliver the 4th grade curriculum and how it would be differentiated for those students who did reach the standard, we were summarily dismissed and told we were putting too much emphasis on the EQAO. As a parent, I'm not sure what else I am supposed to use to measure the performance of the school.

    By Jane | APRIL 15, 2014 10:26 AM

    "Boys Adrift" by Dr. Leonard Sax is an excellent book which identifies the reasons why boys are not achieving the same results at school as girls. All educators of boys should have this book as mandatory reading. Boys in countries who start school at a later age DO succeed at school at the same level as the girls. When boys are pushed into school as early as age 3 they quickly decide that school is not for them. Dr. Sax also states that boys in "Boys Only" schools are quite successful. This is clearly a change from the past 4 decades. Teri Pecoskie please read this book and you will have another article to write!