Belle Lettre From the Frontlines: War On Boys Over, Girls Agree to Settle For Equality

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A ridiculous headline for a possible (hopeful?) conclusion to a ridiculous story.

It turns out, just as there may be no “Opt-Out Revolution” or “Mommy Wars,” there may not be a “Boy Crisis”, as a new study by the Education Sector suggests:

If you’ve been paying attention to the education news lately, you know that Ameri ­can boys are in crisis. After decades spent worrying about how schools “shortchange girls,”1 the eyes of the nation’s education commentariat are now fixed on how they shortchange boys. In 2006 alone, a Newsweek cover story, a major New Republic article, a long article in Esquire, a “Today” show segment, and numerous op-eds have informed the public that boys are falling behind girls in elementary and secondary school and are increasingly outnumbered on college campuses. A young man in Massachusetts filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, arguing that his high school’s homework and community serv ­ice requirements discriminate against boys.2 A growth industry of experts is advising educators and policymakers how to make schools more “boy friendly” in an effort to reverse this slide.

But the truth is far different from what these accounts suggest. The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse; it’s good news about girls doing better.In fact, with a few exceptions, American boys are scoring higher and achieving more than they ever have before. But girls have just improved their performance on some meas ­ ­ ­ures even faster. As a result, girls have narrowed or even closed some academic gaps that previously favored boys, while other long-standing gaps that favored girls have widened, leading to the belief that boys are falling behind.

There’s no doubt that some groups of boys:particularly Hispanic and black boys and boys from low-income homes:are in real trouble. But the predominant issues for them are race and class, not gender. Closing racial and economic gaps would help poor and minority boys more than closing gender gaps, and focusing on gender gaps may distract attention from the bigger problems facing these youngsters.

A consistent trend emerges across these subjects: There have been no dramatic changes in the performance of boys in recent years, no evidence to indicate a boy crisis. Elementary-school-age boys are improving their per ­form ­ance; middle school boys are either improving their per ­form ­ance or showing little change, depending on the subject; and high school boys’ achievement is declining in most subjects (although it may be improving in math). These trends seem to be consistent across all racial subgroups of boys, despite the fact that white boys perform much better on these tests than do black and Hispanic boys.

The hysteria about boys is partly a matter of perspective. While most of society has finally embraced the idea of equality for women, the idea that women might actually surpass men in some areas (even as they remain behind in others) seems hard for many people to swallow. Thus, boys are routinely characterized as “falling behind” even as they improve in absolute terms.

Unfortunately, the current boy crisis hype and the debate around it are based more on hopes and fears than on evidence. This debate benefits neither boys nor girls, while distracting attention from more serious educational problems:such as large racial and economic achievement gaps:and practical ways to help both boys and girls succeed in school.

Anecdotally (admittedly, not the best evidence so go read the study) my 14 year old nephew just finished his first year in high school, where he finished first in almost every subject except PE (hey, I never said we were athletic folk). He finished first in math, science, history, Spanish…and English. I wish I could take credit for it. Actually, I think I can a little. His parents were born and raised in Vietnam (my sister emigrated at the age of 17, my brother-in-law at the age of 23), so while they are fluent in English, they speak with heavy accents and do not feel as confident in their English reading/writing abilities. Kevin was born when I was 11 years old, and I’m his favorite aunt. So I feel like I’ve raised this child since I was a child, and for the past 14 years have taught him everything from manners, ABCs, how to read, how to write, and to (hopefully) stay off drugs and not get girls pregnant or contract STIs.

But how did I get this child, the product of a text-messaging/IMing generation whom I had to literally beat out the use of horrible contractions and emoticons (BRB, thnx, gr8, LOL, “2″ instead of “to” or “too”, u instead of “you”), who has greater strengths in math and science, who generally likes to watch bad, bad preteen TV to do well in English? With hours and hours of work every Saturday for 10 freakin’ years. It started when he was very young, when I would read to him. Then I made him read to me out loud, using natural pauses and a ruler to make sure that what he read out loud was what was on the page. I made him write down words he didn’t know and look up the definitions and write them down to make vocab sheets. I then gave oral quizzes on vocabulary and reading comprehension. And still, we had fun, because we were together, and because I’m a ham and I acted out bits of the book and because spending time with Aunt Belle is wayyyy better than watching hours of Vietnamese music videos.

So far, I don’t think I used a very gender-specific pedagogy. These are things you should be doing with your kids, male or female (definitely beat that bad, sloppy writing out of them, even for emails). I bought him tons of books. True, I’ve bought him lots of adventure tales–the requisite Harry Potter (whose popularity, believe it or not, I hadn’t cottoned onto until I was trying to find something a 9 year old might like and the teenage B&N girl recommended one of her favorites), some books about dragons, and some more books about magicians or criminal mastermind prodigies. Maybe these books may be considered “masculine”—but since when were really fun adventures about young kids getting in and out of trouble (Huck, Tom, and Ramona, we remember you well) gender specific? Kids just like reading about other kids. And you know, I remember that mixed in with the Dickens and Laura Ingalls Wilder I read a lot of tall tales myself–Jules Verne, some silly books about witches or magic, but never that R.L. Stine crap. Maybe we just like the Occult in the Lettre family. And I’ve gotten Kevin onto some series that are popular among both genders (and might I add, among adults): The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, and His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. Maybe I can’t get him to like the Little House series as much as I did (I think it’s issues of pace and the fact that I was obsessed with frontier life as a kid), but I do think I’ve gotten the boy to like long serial narratives that require a good investment of time and patience. I think what worked was that I spent so much time with him, read the books he read (oh yes, how do you think we did reading comprehension quizzes?), and let him wander free in the bookstacks so long as the books met basic language and length requirements.

But perhaps, despite Kevin’s A in English, I’ve been doing it all wrong. Richard Whitmire may think so:

Between 1992 and 2002, the gap by which high school girls outperformed boys on tests in both reading and writing–especially writing–widened significantly. Given the reading and writing demands of today’s college curriculum, that means a lot of boys out there are falling well short of being considered “college material.” Which is why women now significantly outnumber men on college campuses, a phenomenon familiar enough to any sorority sister seeking a date to the next formal. This June, nearly six out of ten bachelor’s degrees awarded will go to women. If the Department of Education’s report is any indication, in coming years, this gender gap will grow even larger.

Why can’t boys be more like girls? Boys are locked into a masculinity box, the feminist researchers say. Most boys stay inside that box, living by a macho boy code that precludes developing the “language of feelings” needed to express themselves or relate to teachers. Boys who break out of this box are doomed to a life of teasing and being bullied. In other words, young boys never get sufficiently acquainted with their feelings to write A-rated essays.

The pragmatists, mostly male researchers, peer inside the school door and see a feminized world that needs tweaking. Professor Jeffrey Wilhelm, co-author of Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys, decries the dearth of boy-friendly reading material. Most literature classes demand that students explore their emotions (not a strong point for boys).

Here’s part of the Grasmick plan: Take existing comic books and graphic novels deemed to cover academic disciplines and sprinkle them around classrooms. Let the boys believe they’re pulling a fast one on the teachers by grabbing a quick read. Sounds bizarre, but it’s based on good hunches: Boys who become successful readers in high school often attribute that success to making a transition from comic books to school books in late elementary school. Why not offer curriculum-as-comic books? It just might work. It also might not. But at least Maryland is trying, which is better than most states.

I don’t think it is necessary to think of reading material as being more friendly to one gender or another. “Chick-lit” aside (that would take another post), good literature is good literature, and fun literature is what kids like best. Not that the kids don’t have to take the boring with the fun, but the important thing is to instill a love of learning in general. So is the problem for boys really a “verbally drenched curriculum?” It certainly didn’t hold my nephew back to add fuel to the fire. And I certainly didn’t get him to read, and like reading by letting him read only comic books (I happen to like comics and graphic novels, but don’t remember that they were particularly instrumental in helping me learn English or learn how to read). My kid learned how to read fine without the benefit of pictures. And he did keep a reading journal. And he’s doing great.

So the bottom line is, there is no boy crisis, and there is no war on boys. Should we then stop talking about changing existing pedagogies? No, Paolo Freire, Lev Vygotsky and bell hooks have shown us that there is indeed no one way to teach a subject, and that pedagogy must be sensitive to differences in gender, class, and race. In fact, there’s the crisis that we should talk about–the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap. Should we then jump into the frying pan that is talking about biological differences in the context of mental aptitude? Well, I think we should be careful not to make a discussion about pedagogy a discussion about whether one race or gender is inherently less intelligent than another.

If you want to talk about a crisis, talk about the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap. I fyou want to talk about a crisis, talk about the lack of women and people of color in the tenure ranks at most universities. So in all the talk about whether boys are really in trouble or whether girls are finally attaining some form of parity and even (gasp!) excelling, let’s talk about the real problems out there.

Problems such as the fact that women in tenure-track positions still lag at Harvard, a year after Larry Summers’ abysmal remarks about women and their natural aptitude for science. But at least, Harvard is trying to address a real problem with real solutions:

A year after Harvard’s president, Lawrence H. Summers, promised a major effort to make the faculty more diverse amid a controversy about his remarks about women in science, a university report released yesterday indicated that most of the work remained to be done. Women represent considerably less than half of the faculty in all but one of Harvard’s schools, and while the number of women in tenure-track positions grew slightly from the last academic year to the current one, women still make up a small fraction of the university’s tenured professors.

These were among the findings in the first report from the Office for Faculty Development and Diversity, which Dr. Summers established at Harvard in May 2005. He also pledged to spend at least $50 million over the next decade to improve the university’s efforts to recruit and promote women and minorities.

Dr. Summers announced the initiatives after months of controversy over his remarks suggesting that “intrinsic aptitude” could help explain why fewer women than men reached the highest ranks of science and math in universities.

The report pointed to new programs including study centers in five important undergraduate science courses; a residential summer program for 100 undergraduates doing research with science and engineering professors; and a lecture series on issues for women in science.The university also announced $7.5 million in programs to help professors balance work and family, including more child care, additional financing to support research and professional travel, and new guidelines on maternity and paternity leaves for faculty members.

If there were really a War on Boys, would women be losing so much in a war of attrition? I do like Harvard’s proposed remedies for the real problem of the gender gap in the tenure-ranks at the Ivory Tower though. Changing workplace-flexibility rules, extending the tenure period, and providing greater child care/research support are concrete changes that will help male and female faculty alike. And it’s a better solution than changing reading lists to comic books.

–Belle Lettre
Cross-posted at Law and Letters

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