Far from surging ahead of men, women are still working to catch up. It's clear that some gender differences in education are real, and there are some groups of disadvantaged boys in desperate need of help. But it's also clear that boys' overall educational achievement and attainment are not in decline — in fact, they have never been better. What accounts for the recent hysteria? It's partly an issue of simple novelty.
The contours of disadvantage in education and society at large have been clear for a long time — low-income, minority, and female people consistently fall short of their affluent, white, and male peers.
Dr Wayne Martino
The idea that historically privileged boys could be at risk, that boys could be shortchanged, has simply proved too deliciously counterintuitive and "newsworthy" for newspaper and magazine editors to resist. The so-called boy crisis also feeds on a lack of solid information.
Although there are a host of statistics about how boys and girls perform in school, we actually know very little about why these differences exist or how important they are. There are many things — including biological, developmental, cultural, and educational factors — that affect how boys and girls do in school.
But untangling these different influences is incredibly difficult. Research on the causes of gender differences is hobbled by the twin demons of educational research: lack of data and the difficulty of drawing causal connections among multiple, complex influences. Nor do we know what these differences mean for boys' and girls' future economic and other opportunities. Yet this hasn't stopped a plethora of so-called experts — from pediatricians and philosophers to researchers and op-ed columnists — from weighing in with their views on the causes and likely effects of educational gender gaps.
In fact, the lack of solid research evidence confirming or debunking any particular hypothesis has created fertile ground for all sorts of people to seize on the boy crisis to draw attention to their pet educational, cultural or ideological issues. The problem, we are told, is that the structured traditional classroom doesn't accommodate boys' energetic nature and need for free motion — or it's that today's schools don't provide enough structure or discipline.
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It's that feminists have demonized typical boy behavior and focused educational resources on girls — or it's the "box" boys are placed in by our patriarchal society. It's that our schools' focus on collaborative learning fails to stimulate boys' natural competitiveness — or it's that the competitive pressures of standardized testing are pushing out the kind of relevant, hands-on work on which boys thrive. The boy crisis offers a perfect opportunity for those seeking an excuse to advance ideological and educational agendas.
Americans' continued ambivalence about evolving gender roles guarantees that stories of "boys in crisis" will capture public attention.
The research base is internally contradictory, making it easy to find superficial support for a wide variety of explanations but difficult for the media and the public to evaluate the quality of evidence cited. Yet there is not sufficient evidence — or the right kind of evidence — available to draw firm conclusions. As a result, there is a sort of free market for theories about why boys are under-performing girls in school, with parents, educators, media, and the public choosing to give credence to the explanations that are the best marketed and that most appeal to their pre-existing preferences.
Unfortunately, this dynamic is not conducive to a thoughtful public debate about how boys and girls are doing in school or how to improve their performance. One branch of the debate over gender and education has focused on various theories of divergence between male and female brains. Men and women are "wired differently," people say, leading to all kinds of alleged problems and disparities that must be addressed.
There's undoubtedly some truth here. The difficulty is separating fact from supposition. The quest to identify and explain differences between men's and women's mental abilities is as old as psychology itself. Although the earliest work in this genre began with the assumption that women were intellectually inferior to men, and sought both to prove and explain why this was the case, more recent and scientifically valid research also finds differences in men's and women's cognitive abilities, as well as in the physiology of their brains.
It's important to note that research does not find that one gender is smarter than the other — on average, men and women score the same on tests of general intelligence. In general, women have higher scores than men on most tests of verbal abilities verbal analogies being an exception , while men have higher scores on tests of what psychologists call "visual-spatial" abilities — the ability to think in terms of nonverbal, symbolic information, measured through such tasks as the ability to place a horizontal line in a tilted frame or to identify what the image of an irregular object would look like if the object were rotated.
Quantitative or mathematical abilities are more even, with men performing better on some types of problems — including probability, statistics, measurement and geometry — while women perform better on others, such as computation, and both genders perform equally well on still others.
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Much of this research is based on studies with adults — particularly college students — but we know that gender differences in cognitive abilities vary with development. Differences in verbal abilities are among the first to appear; vocabulary differences, for example, are seen before children are even 2 years old, and by the time they enter kindergarten, girls are more likely than boys to know their letters and be able to associate letters with sounds. The research identifying these differences in male and female cognitive abilities does not explain their cause, however.
There may be innate, biologically based differences in men and women. But gender differences may also be the result of culture and socialization that emphasize different skills for men and women and provide both genders different opportunities to develop their abilities. Researchers have investigated a variety of potential biological causes for these differences. There is evidence that sex hormones in the womb, which drive the development of the fetus's sex organs, also have an impact on the brain.
Children who were exposed to abnormal levels of these hormones, for example, may develop cognitive abilities more like those of the opposite sex. Increased hormone levels at puberty may again affect cognitive development.
And performance on some types of cognitive tests tends to vary with male and female hormonal cycles. In addition, new technologies that allow researchers to look more closely into the brain and observe its activities have shown that there are differences between the sexes in the size of various brain structures and in the parts of the brain men and women use when performing different tasks. But while this information is intriguing, it must be interpreted with a great deal of caution.
Although our knowledge of the brain and its development has expanded dramatically in recent years, it remains rudimentary. In the future, much of our current thinking about the brain will most likely seem as unsophisticated as the work of the late 19th and early 20th century researchers who sought to prove female intellectual inferiority by comparing the size of men's and women's skulls. In particular, it is notoriously difficult to draw causal links between observations about brain structure or activity and human behavior, a point that scientists reporting the findings of brain research often take great pains to emphasize.
Just as correlation does not always signify causation in social science research, correlations between differences in brain structure and observed differences in male and female behavior do not necessarily mean that the former leads to the latter. But these caveats have not prevented many individuals from confidently citing brain research to advance their preferred explanation of gender gaps in academic achievement.
Proponents of different educational philosophies and approaches cherry-pick findings that seem to support their visions of public education. And a growing boys industry purports to help teachers use brain research on gender differences to improve boys' academic achievement. But many of these individuals and organizations are just seizing on the newest crisis — boys' achievement — to make money and promote old agendas.
Scientific-sounding brain research has lent an aura of authority to people who see anxiety about boys as an opportunity for personal gain. Many have also added refashioned elements of sociology to their boys-in-crisis rhetoric. Boys are treated like defective girls. Thompson is just one of many commentators who argue that today's schools disadvantage boys by expecting behavior — doing homework, sitting still, working collaboratively, expressing thoughts and feelings verbally and in writing — that comes more naturally to girls.
These commentators argue that schools are designed around instructional models that work well with girls' innate abilities and learning styles but do not provide enough support to boys or engage their interests and strengths. While female skills like organization, empathy, cooperativeness, and verbal agility are highly valued in schools, male strengths like physical vigor and competitiveness are overlooked and may even be treated as problems rather than assets, the argument goes.
Building from this analysis, a wealth of books, articles, and training programs endeavor to teach educators how to make schools more "boy friendly. But many other recommendations are based on an inappropriate application of brain research on sex differences. Many of these authors draw causal connections between brain research findings and stereotypical male or female personality traits without any evidence that such causality exists, as the sidebar demonstrates. These analyses also tend to ignore the wide variation among individuals of the same sex. Members of the growing "boys industry" of researchers, advocates, and pop psychologists include family therapist Michael Gurian, author of The Minds of Boys , Boys and Girls Learn Differently!
All of these authors are frequently cited in media coverage of the boy crisis. A quick search on Amazon. A review of these books shows that the boys industry is hardly monolithic. Its practitioners seem to hold a plethora of perspectives and philosophies about both gender and education, and their recommendations often contradict one another.
The education gender gap is bad for girls as well as boys | Melissa Benn
Some focus on boys' emotions and sense of self-worth, while others are more concerned with implementing pedagogical practices — ranging from direct instruction to project-based learning — that they believe will better suit boys' learning style. Still others focus on structural solutions, such as smaller class sizes or single-sex learning environments. But all are finding an audience among parents, educators, and policymakers concerned about boys.
It would be unfair to imply that these authors write about boys for purely self-serving motives — most of these men and women seem to be sincerely concerned about the welfare of our nation's boys. But the work in this field leaves one skeptical of the quality of research, information, and analysis that are shaping educators' and parents' beliefs and practices as they educate boys and girls.
Perhaps most tellingly, ideas about how to make schools more "boy friendly" align suspiciously well with educational and ideological beliefs the individuals promoting them had long before boys were making national headlines. And some of these prescriptions are diametrically opposed to one another. A number of conservative authors, think tanks, and journals have published articles arguing that progressive educational pedagogy and misguided feminism are hurting boys. At the same time, progressive educational pedagogy is harming boys by replacing strict discipline with permissiveness, teacher-led direct instruction with student-led collaborative learning, and academic content with a focus on developing students' self-esteem.
The boy crisis offers an attractive way for conservative pundits to get in some knocks against feminism and progressive education and also provides another argument for educational policies — such as stricter discipline, more traditional curriculum, increased testing and competition, and single-sex schooling — that conservatives have long supported. Progressive education thinkers, on the other hand, tend to see boys' achievement problems as evidence that schools have not gone far enough in adopting progressive tenets and are still forcing all children into a teacher-led pedagogical box that is particularly ill-suited to boys' interests and learning styles.
Similarly, the responses progressive education writers recommend — more project-based and hands-on learning, incorporating kinetic and other learning styles into lessons, making learning "relevant," and allowing children more self-direction and free movement — simply sound like traditional progressive pedagogy. According to Newsweek , "In the last two decades, the education system has become obsessed with a quantifiable and narrowly defined kind of academic success, and that myopic view, these experts say, is harming boys.
Further, many of the arguments NCLB critics make about how it hurts boys — by causing schools to narrow their curriculum or eliminate recess — are not borne out by the evidence. A recent report from the Washington, D. Department of Education found that over 87 percent of elementary schools offer recess and most do so daily. In other words, few of these commentators have anything new to say — the boy crisis has just given them a new opportunity to promote their old messages. To be sure, there are good reasons to be concerned about boys — particularly low-income, urban, rural, and minority boys as well as those with disabilities.
Whether or not our schools are to blame for causing these boys' problems, they need to do a better job of working to address them. In particular, the disproportionate number of boys being identified with learning and emotional disabilities, suspended from school, and dropping out suggests that what our schools are doing doesn't work very well for some boys. But with so much ideological baggage and so little real evidence influencing the public debate on boys' achievement, how are policymakers, educators, and parents to know what to do?
It's likely that there is at least a grain of truth in all the different explanations being offered. The boy industry would not have the success it does if its arguments did not, to some degree, resonate with the experiences of parents and educators. But the many questions left unanswered by the research on these issues — as well as the ideological agendas of many participants in these discussions — make it difficult to draw practical conclusions about how to respond.
The first is to not panic. Boys' educational achievement is improving overall, some gender gaps are less significant than press reports make them out to be, and many boys are doing fine despite the averages. Second, we need to realize that many areas in which we see boys struggling are connected to larger educational and social problems and are not just a function of gender. Fortunately, we know more about these larger problems — and some of the steps we can take to address them — than we do about gender gaps.
Low-income, black, and Hispanic boys, in the aggregate, are not doing well. Focusing on closing these racial and economic achievement gaps would do more to help poor, black, and Hispanic boys than closing gender gaps, and it would also help girls in these groups. Similarly, while boys seem to be doing pretty well in elementary school, their achievement in high school appears to be declining.
But so is the achievement of high school girls. The past decade of school reform — in which we have seen elementary-school-age boys make a lot of progress — focused heavily on the elementary school years and particularly on building early literacy skills. But national policymakers have realized, in the past few years, that America's public high schools are also in need of significant reforms.
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It makes sense to expand these reforms — which should help both boys and girls to achieve — and see if they reverse high school boys' academic achievement declines and narrow gender gaps before we go too far down the boy-crisis road. Educators, parents, and policymakers should therefore be skeptical of simplistic proposals aimed at fixing the boy crisis, such as expanding single-sex schooling, implementing gender-based instructional techniques, or funding new federal programs aimed at improving boys' achievement.
The close relation between the difficulties facing some boys and complex educational challenges such as racial and economic achievement gaps, high school reform, and special education suggests that silver-bullet approaches are unlikely to solve the problems facing many boys. Each of these ideas may have a modicum of merit, but there is little sound research evidence for their effectiveness. In addition, we need to recognize the role that choices play in producing different educational outcomes for men and women. Although some achievement gaps emerge early and appear to have a developmental component, those about which we are the most worried occur later, when the choices young people make have a significant impact on their educational results.
Over the past 25 years, economic opportunities for women have increased dramatically, but many require a bachelor's degree. Through a careful analysis, she demonstrates how stereotypes and inequalities have a real impact on the ways in which these young people negotiate their identities, reminding us of the importance of reading identities within their different contexts This timely and innovative book examines the issues in detail, fore-grounding Muslim boys' own views of their lives and schooling.
The matrix reader: Examining the dynamics of oppression and privilege , pp. Christenbury, R. Smagorinsky Eds. Guildford Press. Teachers as role models: An international perspective. Dworkin Eds.
New York: Springer. The politics of veiling, gender and the Muslim subject: On the limits and possibilities of anti-racist education in the aftermath of September 11, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 29 3 , Male teachers as role models: Addressing issues of masculinity, pedagogy and the re-masculinization of schooling. Curriculum Inquiry, 38 2 , pp. Gender-based literacy reform: A question of challenging or recuperating gender binaries, Canadian Journal of Education, 30 2 , Gender and Education, 16 4 , pp.
Kenan Omercajic: Gender neutral bathrooms in schools: An ethnographic case study , University of Western Ontario in progress. Danielle Carr: Acting out gender: Interrogating gender through performance-based-pedagogies in high school classrooms , University of Western Ontario in progress. Bailing Zhang: The quest for world-class elite universities in China: The perspectives of faculty members, The University of Western Ontario in progress. David Mara: Disability, masculinities and schooling: a narrative inquiry into the storied lives of men and boys with physical disabilities, The University of Western Ontario in progress.
Mark Castrodale: Examining the socio-spatial knowledge s of disabled and mad students in higher education , The University of Western Ontario August 4, Ronnie Ali: Trans-affirmative or trans-positive counseling: A qualitative study of practicing counseling psychologists who work with transgender and gender variant clients , Counseling Psychology, The University of Western Ontario April 22, Anne Eliott: The interplay of masculinities in elementary school: Investigating the dynamics of peer group relationships , Faculty of Education, The University of Western Ontario Completed, December 1, No Way!
Glenn Savage: Silencing everyday experiences of youth? Issues of subjectivity, corporate ideology and popular culture in the English classroom , Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia Completed, Integrated Services.
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