The “boy crisis” has made the news, yet again, though it’s unclear whether much is new or different about it. This time, it’s Hanna Rosin in New York Magazine, asking where “the boy genius” has gone. (For an earlier iteration of the “boy crisis” meme, see Ann Hulbert’s smart takedown of it in Slate a few years back.)
I’m not entirely unsympathetic to worries about how boys may be shortchanged by our educational system. I am, however, reluctant to view it in oversimplified terms.
First, the two-ton elephant in the room – which Rosin doesn’t even mention – is the confluence of gender with race and socioeconomic class. Rosin mentions that boys are less likely than girls to earn a high school or college diploma. But she completely glosses over the fact that by far the most troubling disparity is between African-American boys and girls. (I’ve written before about the racial crisis in education, along with the real problems that emerge if college and learning become “girly” objectives.) All in all, white boys are doing pretty well.
My other objection is that Rosin, like so many other commentators, frames boys’ educational attainment as part of a zero-sum game. Remember those classroom games that pitted the boys against the girls? In the 1970s, my teachers often had the girls and boys vie to be the better team at spelling or math. Teachers may downplay gender-based competition these days (or maybe not!), but the media still can’t drop the idea of a “war against boys,” as Christina Hoff Sommers termed it a decade ago.
The zero-sum frame relies on a boys are from Mars, girls are from Venus view of gender. Yet most interventions to improve boys’ learning will help girls, too! Take the much-lamented death of recess. Sure, the antsiest boys will benefit most from restoring recess. So will the antsiest girls! At least in the lower grades, I still see more boys than girls who are high-energy, but boys don’t monopolize that market. (We can leave aside the nature/nurture question here; anyone who’s spent much time volunteering in a first-grade classroom has seen girls as well as boys who have trouble sitting still.) Fresh air, movement, a break in routine – these are benefits that accrue to all kids, not just boys.
And by the way, the villain who killed recess isn’t, say, Mary Pipher (who wrote Reviving Ophelia) or the AAUW. The culprit is NCLB and every other testing mandate that pressures teachers to maximize the time spent teaching to the test.
Or take the main example Rosin pillories: early testing for gifted programs. I’m sorry, but age four is just too young for sorting kids into ability levels! Parents whose kids are exceptional may gain useful information from early individual testing, especially if they have a bright child who’s seriously frustrated and bored. Otherwise, I don’t see much utility in testing before late gradeschool, and I do see great potential for mislabeling and pigeonholing kids of any gender. (Pigeonholing and mislabeling can be a problem at any age, but that’s such a huge issue, I’m not going to try to address it here.) More boys than girls are likely to have their talents overlooked, but again this is primarily a matter of poor educational practices, which can hurt any child.
On average, of course, girls develop faster in their language skills, especially in the early grades, as Rosin notes. She’s also right when she observes that there are problems stemming from school curricula becoming more verbal, even when it comes to learning math. But again, this is not just an issue for boys!
Here’s an example. Recently, the Bear came home with a math problem that asked which operation he’d use for finding the total amount of produce sold at a roadside stand. The answer was, obviously, addition. But then he was supposed to explain why he’s use that operation! Well, duh! I think it’s terrific that kids with less mathematical inclination are being helped to understand math through verbal routes. But for kids who are less verbal (like my Tiger), it’s neither fair nor useful to be forced to explain mathematical reasoning in words. For kids with fairly equal strengths in both math and language, it’s just annoying and alienating! And yes, my son the Bear falls into that latter category – but so did the young Sungold, and I recall being a girl at the time!
I do see one area where there’s a true zero-sum game: admission to self-enclosed gifted programs, which is what prompted Rosin’s article in the first place. I see the sort of standardized testing that the Tiger underwent this year in first grade, and it was all verbally based – including the math – because the instructions were delivered through headphones. For a kid with listening issues, this was fatal: he scored well below average on everything except a simple non-verbal IQ screening test, where he cleared the 99th percentile – a vivid illustration of how pegging all performance to verbal abilities can systematically underestimate a child.
I can imagine three solutions to this problem. The first is a no-brainer: test children for gifted programs no sooner than fourth grade. Secondly, testing needs to ensure that subtests can’t be easily distorted by weaknesses in the areas not being tested. This is not a trivial problem, but it’s one that can be addressed by clever psychologists.
And thirdly, maybe self-contained gifted programs should be a little less contained. Maybe they need to have flexible enrollment limits. Kids should be able to join in if a later assessment shows their promise. And stand-alone programs should probably be deemphasized in favor of flexible, differentiated teaching strategies that meet kids where they are. This is tougher for teachers to implement than simply putting a bunch of high-performing kids in a classroom – who are not always necessarily the ones with the greatest potential, since some extremely bright children check out due to boredom, and others may be brilliant but struggle with a learning difference. Those children, again, are more likely to be boys than girls. All of them deserve a chance to flourish.