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January 18, 2006

Gender gaps

When a gender gap that favors boys, the proposed solutions generally involve changing girls to meet the prevailing ideal. This is usually the most sensible way to approach the problem. Girls are underperforming in math and science? Well, then we should keep up the emphasis on math and science for everyone and push girls harder.

By contrast, when a gender gap favors females, people are more likely to address the discrepancy by challenging the evaluation criteria. American public school curricula have come to place more emphasis on reading comprehension and other verbal abilities. Some educators argue that this shift has placed male students at a systematic disadvantage because girls tend to be better readers and writers than boys. Note that schools deliberately increased the amount of reading and writing in the curriculum because they thought that it these skills were intrinsically valuable for all students.

Here's an excerpt from Richard Whitmire's New Republic article on the performance gap between boys and girls in grade school:

Expecting boys to become more like girls, however, will strike parents of boys as a bit odd--especially liberal parents who swore they'd never give their children violent toys, only to watch their sons mold clumps of clay into submachine guns.

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).

Other pragmatists point to the simple things: Basing grades on turning in homework on time guarantees lower grades for boys. Studies consistently show boys have more trouble than girls turning in homework on time. Some educators and parents explain this by saying that many boys simply forget or decline to turn in completed homework. Here's the boy-thinking: If I answered the homework question to my satisfaction, the task is done. Why turn it in? If you're the parent of a girl, that may sound bizarre. It isn't. Parents of slumping boys know differently. [New Republic]

I can't believe anyone is seriously suggesting that the relationship between grades and deadlines unfairly disadvantages boys. Maybe it's true that boys have a harder time, but the emphasis on turning in homework is hardly evidence of pernicious feminization.

To be fair, this is the setup phase of the article. Whitmire goes on to argue that the key to putting boys and girls on an equal footing is good old fashioned remedial reading instruction. Even so, he entertains the notion boys need to be tricked into reading more:

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.

Using the comic book format for primary school textbooks isn't inherently bizarre. University textbooks are drifting in that direction already. Newer texts are crammed with diagrams, photographs, and other visual aids--even in the humanities and social sciences.

But what's behind the suggestion that visual aids be deployed as a stealth strategy. Is the male ego so fragile that boys couldn't be even be expected to contend with a visual enrichment of the general curriculum? Now, that's bizarre.

[Hat tip to Kevin Drum]

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Comments

Newer texts are crammed with diagrams, photographs, and other visual aids--even in the humanities and social sciences.

Interesting. That's also the trick being employed by daily newspapers to garner "young" readers.

What is this guy talking about? Boys don't read because of some inherent male aversion to reading? What? That makes no sense.

Boys don't read for the same reasons girls don't read -- namely, many reasons, most of which have nothing to do with their genital morphology or hormone levels. In my experience it's usually because there is no perceived value in reading (either they derive no pleasure from the exercise of their abstract faculties, or they are so focused on external considerations that reading is a fruitless distraction). If there were "male" rewards for reading qua reading, it would likely enjoy a surge in popularity among boys.

Then again, trying to "trick" boys into reading might be less labour-intensive than addressing the underlying issues of gender that much of this seems to result from. In my opinion.

Do kids really learn to read well in school? My impression is that kids who learn to read well, learn it at home and start learning to read long before they're in school. If the kid's parents are enthusiastic about reading, the kid is likely to develop an interest in reading.

About different aptitudes for reading between boys and girls, I can't believe the general difference is big enough compared to individual variations to be worth worrying about. Some boys have a lot of trouble sitting still. But so do some girls. So teachers and parents should know how to help fidgety kids. I don't think this is really complicated.

Love it. I want to see some hand-wringing articles about how men are going to lose in the mating game if they aren't good enough to score a wife.

My impression is that kids who learn to read well, learn it at home and start learning to read long before they're in school. If the kid's parents are enthusiastic about reading, the kid is likely to develop an interest in reading.

This is true. Other research shows that modeling reading processes in your classes helps students learn how to process information, i.e. reading aloud and imparting how you dissect the text, from Babar to Hemingway.

Love it. I want to see some hand-wringing articles about how men are going to lose in the mating game if they aren't good enough to score a wife.

It'd probably say that women need to be changed so that they're more dependent and available, though.

If a teacher is going to sprinkle around various comic books, "The Cartoon History of the Universe" would be a damn fine choice. Very fun reading material, and good, wide-ranging information to boot. It's good enough that it would probably serve as a decent supplemental text through basic high school history classes.

I doubt that this personal experience has anything to do with the gender gap in reading performance, because it occurred in the context of a gifted students classroom where everyone, regardless of gender, excelled at reading, and I suspect the gap doesn't show much at that point. But,

For a school year in middle school, I was in a classroom that participated in this program (I forget the name) where each week, the students read a few books, then discussed and reviewed them. The results of the reviews were tallied, and the books were ranked. The books were targetted to young adults, ie, us, and were all recent publications. I don't know exactly how they were selected beyond that, but they seemed to basically mirror the young adult section at the library, so it may very well have been a summation of the "young adult" tagged books from one or more publishers.

There was a definite skew in the genders at which the books were aimed. The books almost all focused on people our age or slightly older, and discussed issues of supposed relevance to us, like the awkwardness of growing up. Every so often you'd get a semi-fun escapist survival fantasy (young man lost in the mountains after plane crash! will he survive?? who knows!), but mostly it was first kisses, breaking up, and tales with subtle morals about dealing with our allegedly budding sexuality.

Unsurprisingly, to myself at least, boys seemed to not enjoy this class project. The class didn't get me down, because I read voraciously, so I could put away the few books per week I was required to read and still have time for something I actually enjoyed (Gordon R. Dickson, Anne McCaffrey).

I know that the most likely explanation for the skew in what gender the books were targetted towards is a market one. Probably more 13-15 year old girls read "young adult" literature than boys, so the books are aimed towards interpersonal relationships and other topics authors and editors likely think will sell well with that crowd.

Maybe the system we have for helping kids select books to read contributes to the problem somewhat? At this point in my life, I shudder to call a Doom novelization "literature" or even a "book," but there was an age where I would have enjoyed that sort of thing, and that age led into me graduating into more... worthwhile literature. That sort of book can be the literary equivalent of training wheels, but they're not easy to find in libraries, and you never see them on recommended reading lists, or in sections of libraries specifically labeled as appropriate to groups of kids.

Maybe that might help? I know that blood-and-guts books with shallow literary value at best is kind of pandering to stereotypes of young boys, but maybe after that foundation is laid out, someone can slip a copy of The City Who Fought into their hands, and see what happens.

What comix are good reading for high school kids?

Maus and Persepolis seem like obvious choices. Asterix read in the original French might be good for relatively advanced French students. What else though? I must admit, comics are an area about which I am all-but illiterate.

Lindsay,

The tone here seems a little more mixed than you're making it out to be. There is at least one place where Whitmire says that the problem is the failure to adapt teaching techniques to improve the education of boys: "It's not that schools have changed their ways to favor girls; it's that they haven't changed their ways to help boys adjust to this new world.".

Also, the bit where it's shown that boys don't turn in homework on time as often doesn't say that the response should be "cut boys more slack". It just says that the result will be lower grades for boys. Now, to claim that this is due to some Summers-esque genetic gender difference is a stretch.

I think the comic book idea is silly.

Patrick Hickey--

I think that the tendency to favor "worthwhile" books and "age appropriate" themes does tend to disadvantage boys. When I was in Junior High, about half the boys in the class had trouble getting motivated to read the assigned material, but passed around dog-eared copies of S.E. Hinton's novels. Her books may be pulp, but they taught us a skill that's more essential than dissecting the themes of great literature.

Nicolas Beaudrot--

My mother had a lot of success with Classic Comics, which were text-heavy versions of books like Ivanhoe and Don Quixote. While this had the added benefit of giving students familiarity with cultural icons that are references again and again in our society, the main thing was getting students to learn reading skills.

The main problem I have with this and virtually all New Republic articles on education is that it misses the most important piece of the education puzzle: class size. The fact is, any approach to education is undermined when there are too many students in a class. All good practices depend on an ordered classroom in which the teacher can give adequate individual instruction to students who are having trouble with a given activity.

Unfortunately, shrinking class sizes requires money, so the New Republic, Newsweek, the New York Times, etc., will devote hundreds of column inches to any idea that doesn't involve student/teacher ratios.

One off-topic point: Jonathan Kozol has now published yet another study of the re-segregation of schools, and our neglect of predominantly non-white schools. It would have been nice to have some questions about school segregation during the Alito hearings.

Professor Jeffrey Wilhelm, co-author of *Reading Don't Fix No Chevys,* decries the dearth of boy-friendly reading material.

I know that professor Wilhelm was probably not endorsing the attitude expressed in the title of his book, but merely calling our attention to a prevailing notion but...

Of course reading fixes Chevys! Can you think of any important piece of modern technology that does not require extensive technical documentation, often badly written?

Engineering, whether it is fixing Chevys or programing computers, requires a great deal of literacy. Perhaps the boy-friendly books that we are looking for are non-fiction? This will also have the advantage of introducing girls to things like physics and engineering, where they are still underrepresented.

You know it's weird but my reading skills have probably gotten worse as I've gotten older. There are far too many things competing for my attention.

As far as comics go, most of them are OK. Quality is usually based on who's writing and drawing the books at various points. One problem though some may have is the imagery in comics. All the men are built like California governors and the women are built like Playboy centerfolds. Neither are terribly realistic for looks. On the other hand though, the women are generally strong personalities who are leaders and most of time have distinct moral codes.

As a long time comic fan, there's a lot of good stuff out there with good story lines and excellent writing. A lot of it is for mature audiences. Also, the vast majority of it is male oriented...hence the busty woman in tight outfits. This is where you'd probably lose many of the female class members. I proudly did my senior english term paper on Batman though.

Anyway... I say stick with regular literature for the most part. Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway still have a lot to offer. Of course I think Tolkien-based learning is a good thing too.

Just quick note about the comics, I think Whitmire and I are talking about using the comic book format to convey curriculum material, not using currently available comic titles as textbooks.

Using sequential art and text to convey information is a perfectly legitimate approach.

Although, I don't see anything wrong with using some currently available comix titles as textbooks. When I was in French immersion, mainstream comics like TinTin and Asterix were an integral part of the reading mix.

I don't think most students are thrilled with the reading material assigned in English.

I think it's sort of a myth that reading assignments are overwhelmingly unfriendly to boys. There's plenty of gender neutral literary material in the standard curriculum. Girls and boys slog through Moby Dick, The Outsiders, and The Red Badge Courage, "Hamlet". It's not like it's all "Great Gatsby" or "Wuthering Heights." In my public school we read a lot of adventure and nature stories like "Never Cry Wolf", "Julie and the Wolves", "I Heard the Owl Call My Name."

Ah, the soft bigotry of low expectations...

When a gender gap that favors boys, the proposed solutions generally involve changing girls to meet the prevailing ideal.
Or, shrugging shoulders and concluding that boys are just better than girls at science/maths and that's the way things are. Like Orson Scott Card explaining why there were so few girls at battle school in "Ender's Game" -- "Too many centuries of evolution are working against them".

I think we should do whatever works to get kids to do better at school, and the comic book idea doesn't seem that off to me. But it should not be advocated as a kind of thumb on the scales measure designed to help boys catch up with girls.

About different aptitudes for reading between boys and girls, I can't believe the general difference is big enough compared to individual variations to be worth worrying about. Some boys have a lot of trouble sitting still. But so do some girls. So teachers and parents should know how to help fidgety kids. I don't think this is really complicated.
Amen, Gary Sugar. I think we should do whatever we can to encourage kids to contribute their failures and successes not to the groups they belong to but to their own individual strengths and weaknesses and most importantly, the effort they put into their work. I don't know if you've heard of the concept of stereotype threat. When experimenters tell blacks at the beginning of a cognitive test that it is a test where whites do better, the average score goes down dramatically compared to a group with the same racial makeup who were not told one way or another.

The sexist reaction against the improvement in girls' education is also revealing itself in articles (in e.g. NYTimes) pointing out -- without demur -- that some universities are "quietly" admitting less qualified white guys to satisfy some sense of "balance" in the college community. And why? Because civilization will come to an end if men can't get places at university in equal numbers as women, e.g. (as one commenter noted) there won't be anyone left to marry. Funny how a comparable argument, without marriage and this time in reference to women and minorities, gets shot down because all of a sudden civilization is imperiled not by a mismatch of numbers and representation, but the presumed tidal wave of incompetence that will sweep us all away. Sigh....

In the meantime, as mother of a boy, I can say with confidence that his problem is not a boy-unfriendly curriculum, but a culture that -- when it comes to males -- favors sports performance over intellectualism.

I've tried the comic books sprinkled around in english classes in asia. works surprisingly well. had an entire class of non-talking girls suddenly break open to discuss one piece. in asia at least it seems like when you're discussing comics people are more likely to comment becuase it's less serious on the other hand the school systems stress pedantic learning where the students listen to their instructors politely etc. hence taking things down to the pop culture level can open things up. On another note, in the U.K. they tried to classify girls into special math classes so they could score better (along with afro-carribans interestingly). doesn't really work apparently.

I can't believe anyone is seriously suggesting that the relationship between grades and deadlines unfairly disadvantages boys. Maybe it's true that boys have a harder time, but the emphasis on turning in homework is hardly evidence of pernicious feminization.

The explanation I've seen - at least the one that didn't seem completely insane - is that boys are reared to be more independent, whereas girls are reared to be more obedient, quiet, and accommodating, and to like repetitive tasks such as all households chores. Schools emphasize pointless, repetitive tasks, which girls then do better on because they're encouraged to do what is expected of them instead of look at a piece of homework and think, "It's stupid - why should I do it for the 54th time?" Obviously I'm exaggerating - not all boys have my attitude toward homework, and not all girls have the attitude the straight-A-scoring girls I went to middle school with had - but this explains the discrepancy well.

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).

Yes, males are so terrible at expressing their emotions that the majority of literature was written by women. Yep, that's right -- Shakespeare was a woman. So was Hawthorne. And Hemingway. And Fitzgerald. And Faulkner. Therefore, no boy can be expected to read and understand what they wrote.

Seriously, do these people even listen to themselves?

It would also be nice if people would read a little social history and realize how recently it is that men have been considered naturally out of touch with their emotions. Has no one ever heard of Byron? Shelley? Keats?

It's crazy to think that it's unfair to boys for the school system to reward sitting down, shutting up, and doing your work.

Schools have stressed these dispositions for longer than than women have been allowed an education.

The schools are designed to create compliant employees who won't balk at stupid, repetitive activities on tight deadlines. Everybody has to learn to put up with a certain amount of that in order to get anywhere in life.

It's the male-dominated work world that has always upheld these standards.

Yes, males are so terrible at expressing their emotions that the majority of literature was written by women. Yep, that's right -- Shakespeare was a woman. So was Hawthorne. And Hemingway. And Fitzgerald. And Faulkner. Therefore, no boy can be expected to read and understand what they wrote.

I don't think you're right. First, the idea that emotions are for girls may be recent, but it doesn't mean it doesn't cause boys to shy away from books that they deem too emotional or psychological. One of the known problems with modern patriarchy is that it alienates men by making them bury emotions and consider talking about and expressing their feelings weak. And second, suppose boys are reared to avoid expressing any form of emotion more than girls, so 10% of men and 50% of women can express emotions in writing. Still, until recently women didn't have a chance to succeed as writers because of ambient sexism, so there will be more published works expressing emotions by men than by women.

It's crazy to think that it's unfair to boys for the school system to reward sitting down, shutting up, and doing your work.

Schools have stressed these dispositions for longer than than women have been allowed an education.

The schools are designed to create compliant employees who won't balk at stupid, repetitive activities on tight deadlines. Everybody has to learn to put up with a certain amount of that in order to get anywhere in life.

It's the male-dominated work world that has always upheld these standards.

I don't disagree. I don't think that's unfair; although I think that this characterization of schools makes them almost completely redundant, it has nothing to do with the gender gap. Put another way, if the gender gap were a result of a good system - for example, if it was because serious literature requires being open about emotions and being unafraid to express them - then the only acceptable solution for it would be to make boys more like girls in this respect.

My explanation for the fact that this gender gap has only emerged recently even though schools have required obedience and conformity since at latest the Middle Ages is that until recently, girls weren't encouraged to be good at school. Since the rise of public education boys have been so encouraged, within the parameters of being masculine. In recent times, girls have been similarly encouraged, within the parameters of being feminine; but the parameters of being feminine are less restrictive than these of being masculine, so girls have done better. I know it's entirely ad hoc, and I'll drop it if I see a better one, but so far it seems solid to me.

Where the boys are. Women are meeting or surpassing high standards for admissions because they can.If the male population drops below 40%,the women look for another school.Standards for men are lowered in order to provide an attractive environment for the more desirable students;high functioning women.This double standard is set by human behaviour, not institutions.Is that about right, or should I read the article again,slower this time? We're back to that line in "BODY HEAT";"You're stupid.I like that in a man."

Apparently, when the first Harry Potter book was published the publishers insisted on using Rowlings initials rather than her name, for fear boys would reject a book written by a woman.

First, the idea that emotions are for girls may be recent, but it doesn't mean it doesn't cause boys to shy away from books that they deem too emotional or psychological. One of the known problems with modern patriarchy is that it alienates men by making them bury emotions and consider talking about and expressing their feelings weak.

So the solution is to not make boys read books that talk about icky emotions?

Frankly, I find the entire line of argumentation stupid. My fiance has absolutely no problem reading books. Hell, he reads better/more literary books than I do, and enjoys them more. He reads the New Yorker.

Of course, he decided early on that "traditional" masculinity was stupid and that he didn't need to impress anybody. Why are you so interested in teaching boys to conform to an outdated and useless role, Alon? Not only teaching it, but enforcing the role by never presenting them with material that challenges it?

We've done about half the work of feminism so far: we've broken women free from their restrictive roles. Now the hard work begins as we start pointing out to boys and men that the patriarchy doesn't help most of them, and in fact hurts them every day. That's going to be the hard part.

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