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"Are boys better at school than girls?" Michela Musto, a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute, asked middle school students, after observing their classrooms. Musto recently presented their answers to an audience of Clayman Institute faculty fellows. Her talk, titled "Brilliant or Bad: School Regulation of Boys' Rule-Breaking and the Gendered Social Construction of Exceptionalism in Early Adolescence," has since been published as the lead article in the June 2019 American Sociological Review.
This study arose from a peculiar puzzle. Girls outperform boys at every stage of the academic path—so much so that the media has declared this underachievement the "boy crisis." Yet students and teachers often perceive boys as smarter and more gifted. "Why?" asked Musto.
Question - Musto - Ethnography - Interviews - Students
To answer this question, Musto conducted a 2.5-year longitudinal ethnography and 196 interviews with students, teachers and administrators at a suburban middle school. She followed a class cohort from sixth though eighth grade to examine classroom dynamics over time. Studying middle school provides important insights into student's academic development. It is when education pathways as well as gender and sexuality become more salient in students' lives.
Musto's observations focused on two academic tracks: higher-level and lower-level courses. She found that boys in both tracks frequently broke classroom rules, such as not raising their hands to speak. Boys regularly interrupted class, cracked jokes, and whispered side comments. Meanwhile, girls tended to follow teachers' instructions to listen quietly and raise their hands.
Example - Mr - Green - Honors - English
For example, in Mr. Green's honors English class, Musto observed boys repeatedly interrupt the class. At the beginning of class one day while Mr. Green explained the day's activity—a debate—a white boy who Musto calls Tristan interrupted the teacher to say, "I'm turning 12 in this class at 11:03!"
"Okay, very good," Mr. Green responded, and then reminded the class to talk in turn during the debate.
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